The tomatillo unwrapped

Times Staff Writers

IT'S VIBRANT green and looks like a small, under-ripe tomato hidden under a delicate, paper-like husk. Peel back that wrapping to reveal firm, slightly sticky flesh with a scent faintly reminiscent of freshly picked herbs. Take one bite and the sweet-tart flavor rings with plum, apple and citrus notes.

The tomatillo, a close but very independent cousin of the tomato and Cape gooseberry, is known by several names, including husk tomatoes, jam berries and Mexican green tomatoes. Though widely available year-round, the main season is May through October. Allowed to mature, tomatillos may range in color from yellow to red, even purple. But they're best picked just before ripening, when the flesh is still firm and the flavors are bright with a gentle but assertive acidity. Look for firm fruit with tight, unwrinkled husks.

With husks on, tomatillos keep for about two weeks stored in a paper bag and refrigerated, but husk them and store refrigerated in a plastic bag and they keep up to four weeks. If you garden and find yourself with an abundance, try freezing them (spread them, sliced or whole on a sheet pan in the freezer until solid, then place them in an airtight freezer bag).

In Spanish, tomatillo means "little tomato," and records show that tomatillos were cultivated by the Aztecs as far back as 800 B.C. Tomatillos liven many Latin American recipes with their vibrant color, often silky texture and mildly tart flavor. They're often used in salsas, especially those that lighten rich chicken and pork dishes.

Tomatillos lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods such as roasting, sauteing and stewing. Cooking softens the acidity and brings out the sweetness in the fruit. And like tomatoes, tomatillos can be enjoyed raw. Eat the fruit by itself, or use it to punch up a salad or cold dish.

For a simple meal, try grilling tomatillos -- direct heat over a hot fire brings out the sweet notes of the fruit -- by cutting them into wedges and lightly oiling and seasoning them. Quickly grill the tomatillos so they're crisp-tender -- a couple of minutes per side -- then toss them with some quick-grilled scallions, serrano chile and marinated, grilled shrimp. Divide the mixture among freshly warmed tortillas, add a side dish -- and supper is served.

Or try a variation on classic chile verde by using them in a sauce for a fluffy omelet made with panela cheese (a fresh Mexican cheese that softens to rich creaminess when heated). Saute diced pancetta and tomatillos with minced onion and garlic. The pancetta cooks until caramelized and crisp; the tomatillo is added just so it warms through and blends with the flavors in the pan.

Freshen up the classic pairing of tomatillo and pork by adding citrus and fresh basil, mint and oregano. Stud a boneless pork roast with slivered garlic. Brown it in a heavy-bottomed casserole. In the same pan, saute onion, garlic, serrano chile and coarsely chopped tomatillos, then place the roast back in the pan. Add some broth, orange zest and fresh oregano and roast until the meat is falling-apart tender.

Finish the dish by adding some fresh basil, mint and more oregano to the sauce (there is no cilantro in this variation ) along with some fresh lime juice. Spoon the rustic sauce over the pork and serve with rice or grilled tortillas.

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

donna.deane@latimes.com

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Garlic shrimp with grilled tomatillos

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 2 to 4

Note: From Donna Deane.

1/2 pound cleaned, peeled large tail-on shrimp

Olive oil

1 small clove garlic, pressed through a garlic press

Salt, pepper

3/4 pound tomatillos, each cut into six wedges (eight if the tomatillos are large)

4 green onions

1 small serrano chile

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cumin

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves

Tortillas

1. Heat a grill over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with 1 tablespoon olive oil, the garlic, one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of black pepper. Allow to marinate while the tomatillos, onions and chile are grilled.

2. In another medium bowl, toss the tomatillo wedges with just enough olive oil to coat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Grill the wedges until charred and crisp-tender, about 2 1/2 minutes on each side. Place them in a large bowl, and set aside in a warm place.

3. Lightly brush the green onions and the serrano chile with a little olive oil. Grill until tender and charred on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside until cool enough to handle. Slice the onions crosswise into 2-inch pieces and add to the tomatillos. Halve the chile and remove the seeds, then chop and add to the tomatillos. Toss and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Grill the shrimp just until cooked through (they will be opaque, firm and pink), 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side. Remove the shrimp from the grill and toss them in the bowl with the tomatillos along with the cumin and oregano. Serve with grilled tortillas.

Each of 4 servings: 107 calories; 10 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 84 mg. cholesterol; 246 mg. sodium.

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Cheese omelet with tomatillo sauce

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane. Mexican panela cheese is available at Latino markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon butter, divided

3 tablespoons diced pancetta

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 cup peeled and diced tomatillos (about 2 large or 3 medium)

Salt, pepper

3 eggs

1/4 cup shredded panela cheese

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 teaspoon of the butter. Add the diced pancetta and saute, stirring occasionally, until crisp and browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and continue to saute until translucent, then stir in the garlic and diced tomatillo. Continue to cook until the tomatillo is crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Season to taste and set aside in a warm place.

2. In a small bowl, beat together the eggs with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.

3. In an 8-inch skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat until melted, add the eggs and stir until they just start to set on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the eggs and reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to cook until the top of the omelet is set and the bottom is nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Fold the omelet in half and continue to cook until the cheese is completely melted, about 1 more minute.

4. Transfer the omelet to a serving plate and spoon over the tomatillo sauce. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and serve immediately.

Each serving: 295 calories; 17 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 358 mg. cholesterol; 636 mg. sodium.

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Slow-cooked pork with fresh herb tomatillo sauce

Total time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane.

2 pounds boneless pork butt

2 to 3 slivered garlic cloves, plus 1 minced garlic clove, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons oil

1 cup chopped onion

1/2 small serrano chile, seeded and minced

1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and coarsely chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

2 teaspoons fresh oregano, divided

1 tablespoon chopped basil

1 tablespoon chopped mint

1 teaspoon lime juice

Black pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a small sharp knife to make small 1-inch deep cuts all over the surface of the pork, and push one sliver of garlic into each slit. Season the pork with salt and pepper, rubbing the seasonings all over the meat.

2. In a large, heavy oven-proof casserole, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the pork and sear on all sides to a rich brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pork to a plate and set aside.

3. Add the onion to the casserole and reduce the heat to medium. Saute the onion until tender, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the minced garlic, the serrano chile and the tomatillos and continue to saute until the tomatillos are tender, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the chicken broth to deglaze the pan. Stir in the orange peel and 1 teaspoon of the oregano. Nestle the roast back with the vegetables and spoon some of the juices over the meat. Cover and roast 2 hours, until the pork is tender (it will pull apart easily). Remove the casserole from the oven.

5. Carefully lift the meat out of the casserole onto a carving board. Stir the basil, mint, remaining oregano, lime juice and a few grinds of black pepper into the sauce. Use a fork to break the meat apart into bite size pieces. Divide the pork evenly among six plates and spoon the tomatillo sauce evenly over the portions. Serve with grilled tortillas and/or rice.

Each serving: 323 calories; 27 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 21 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 90 mg. cholesterol; 385 mg. sodium.

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