What Do I Do With a Tomatillo?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberts is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer in Los Angeles

I remember the first time I saw a tomatillo. It was the late ‘70s and I’d just moved to Southern California from New York. There they were in the market: husk-covered, small green fruits resembling a tomato and looking so cute, so vulnerable. They invited me to take them home.

At that time, Mexican cuisine was little known on the East Coast, and I assumed that a tomatillo was a little tomato, which it isn’t.

Once in the kitchen, I found out they’re more like little green men from outer space than tomatoes--difficult to understand, not at all what I thought. For instance, you can’t serve them in salads in place of tomatoes. On their own, they don’t make a very palatable vegetable either, becoming a messy puree when cooked.

What to do with them?

That is the question most cooks who are unfamiliar with tomatillos ask. And that’s why tomatillos haven’t had much crossover success in the culinary world. Unlike potatoes, corn and tomatoes, which have become staples in much of the world, or even plantains, jicama and chayote, other New World crops that have found an audience among the international cooking set, tomatillos have confounded many cooks.

Tomatillos are closer in texture to eggplant than tomatoes, with spongy flesh flecked with many, many seeds. Their flavor is tart and astringent. Cooked, they take on the sourness of a green apple. They can be used raw if you rid them of some juice by salting slices for 30 minutes, then rinsing. Salting improves their texture and mitigates the astringent aftertaste.


My preferred method of taming the tomatillo is drying. Halve and lightly salt them and dry them in the oven at 200 degrees until they’re wrinkled, shrunken versions of themselves. Season with salt, pepper and slivers of uncooked garlic. Pack in olive oil and let them stand for a couple of weeks. Use them as you would dried tomatoes, but don’t expect sweetness. They’re tart, lemony and delicious in sauces, salads and with fresh mozzarella cheese. And they kick up the flavor in pork and poultry stews.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

12 tomatillos, husked, washed and halved

2 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 avocado, peeled and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon basil leaves

Heat oil in large saucepan. Add onion and cook until soft but not brown, about 2 minutes. Add tomatillos and cook 1 minute. Add stock, salt and pepper. Cover, bring to boil and immediately remove from stove. Add avocado and basil.

Puree mixture in blender or food processor until smooth. Chill completely before serving.

4 servings. Each serving:

173 calories; 984 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.03 grams fiber.


2 tomatillos

1/4 cup capers, drained

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

2 tablespoons finely minced red onion, plus 4 thin slices for garnish

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 pound salmon, skin and bones removed

4 wedges lime

8 slices toast

Remove paper-like husks from tomatillos and chop finely. (Note: This should make 1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped tomatillos.) Place in mixing bowl.

Chop capers and parsley and add to tomatillos. Cover and let stand 30 minutes. Tie mixture in kitchen towel and wring out moisture.

Return to bowl and add mustard seeds, Dijon-style mustard, minced onion, lemon juice and oil. Mix well.

Add salmon to tomatillo mixture and mash together well with fork just before serving. Mound on plates. Garnish each mound with slice of red onion and wedge of lime. Serve immediately with warm toast.

4 servings. Each serving without toast:

214 calories; 313 mg sodium; 50 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 0.08 gram fiber.

30 minutes or less icon:


1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, sliced

10 tomatillos, husked, washed and sliced

1 egg, beaten

3/4 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup butter


Freshly ground pepper

This is a great accompaniment to grilled or broiled fish and poultry.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet. Add onion and saute until soft but not brown, about 7 minutes. Transfer to plate and keep warm in oven at 200 degrees.

Combine tomatillos and egg in bowl. Remove tomatillo slices 1 at a time and let excess egg run off. Dip each slice on both sides in bread crumbs.

Add butter and remaining oil to skillet and heat over medium heat. Saute slices in skillet until golden, about 2 minutes per side.

Drain tomatillos on paper towels and place over onions in oven to keep warm until all are cooked. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

4 servings. Each serving:

333 calories; 346 mg sodium; 85 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.17 gram fiber.