tomatillos

Yesterday the lunch special at Reposado in Palo Alto was green shrimp posole, a hominy stew with shrimp as its central feature (and with other shellfish in the stew) and with green sauce (salsa verde, made with tomatillos). Fabulous.

So tomatillo was today’s morning name, but for an entirely explicable reason.

I’m going to focus on tomatillos here, but first some words on posole.

Discussion of posole (and hominy) in a section of a posting “Thanksgiving meals” of 11/24/11, a section about classic posole: red (with salsa roja, tomato sauce with chiles, or just red with chile powder) and featuring pork. If the menu just says posole, this is what you’ll get; it’s the unmarked hominy stew.

But there are other possibilities: green rather than red, and featuring some central protein other than pork — in particular, chicken (or other poultry) or (swoon) slow-braised lamb. Even (I now discover) in a vegan version, red or green, with tofu and a vegetable broth rather than a meat or seafood broth.

Tomatillos. (The name tomatillo is of course a diminutive of tomate ‘tomato’.) Wikipedia on the plant and its fruit:

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), also known as the Mexican husk tomato, is a plant of the nightshade family bearing small, spherical and green or green-purple fruit of the same name.

Tomatillos originated in Mexico and were cultivated in the pre-Columbian era. A staple of Mexican cuisine, they are eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes, particularly salsa verde.

… The tomatillo fruit is surrounded by an inedible, paper-like husk formed from the calyx. As the fruit matures, it fills the husk and can split it open by harvest. The husk turns brown, and the fruit can be several colors when ripe, including yellow, red, green, or even purple. The freshness and greenness of the husk are quality criteria.

Tomatillos are a key ingredient in fresh and cooked Mexican and Central-American green sauces. The green color and tart flavor are the main culinary contributions of the fruit. Purple and red-ripening cultivars often have a slight sweetness, unlike the green- and yellow-ripening cultivars, and are therefore generally used in jams and preserves. Like their close relatives, cape gooseberries, tomatillos have a high pectin content. Another characteristic is they tend to have a varying degree of a sappy sticky coating, mostly when used on the green side out of the husk.

The flowers are recognizably of the Solanaceae, very similar to tomato flowers:

(#1)

Notice the leaves, also very similar to the tomato. Here’s the plant (which, like tomato plants, tends to sprawl) with fruits in husks:

(#2)

Several times in Columbus, I grew tomatillo plants from seed (which is very easy to do), so that we could make our own fresh salsa verde. And here’s the salsa, with a few fruits in and out of husk on the side, plus corn chips for dipping:

(#3)

Notes on the family. From a posting of 10/17/12 on “gypsum weed etc.”, quoting Wikipedia on Jimson weed:

Datura stramonium, known by the common names Jimson weed or datura is a plant in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which is believed to have originated in the Americas, but is now found around the world. [other Solanaceae: potato, tomato, tomatillo, chili pepper and bell pepper, eggplant, Cape gooseberry, Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Chinese lantern, tobacco, petunia]

(Thanks to this 2012 posting, the Solanaceae have now been added to my running inventory of plant families, as #55.)

Plants in this family include a number of food plants, some ornamentals, and several seriously poisonous plants, like Jimson weed and deadly nightshade. In fact, portions of virtually all of the plants in the family are packed with alkaloids that range from mildly to mortally poisonous (for the tobacco plant, famously, the alkaloid nicotine). For the potato plant, only the mature tubers are entirely safe, and for the tomato and tomatillo plants, only the fruits.

The list above misses some plants in the family, at least one of which I’ve posted about on this blog, in “Farewell to the trees” of 8/16/14: the potato vine. There I quoted Wikipedia on the plant:

Solanum crispum is a species of flowering plant in the Solanaceae [“nightshade”] family, native to Chile and Peru. Common names include Chilean potato vine, Chilean nightshade, Chilean potato tree and potato vine. Growing to 6 m (20 ft) tall, it is a semi-evergreen, woody-stemmed climbing plant. The small blue fragrant flowers, 2.5 cm in diameter, with prominent yellow ovaries, appear in clusters in summer. They resemble those of the closely related potato [Solanum tuberosum]. Very small poisonous berries are produced in autumn.

All parts of the plant are to some degree poisonous.

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