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Growing tomatillos in containers

Classic Mexican ingredient is so easy to grow and ornamental

If you want to try something new that’s a doddle to grow but a little bit different, why not try tomatillos?

Although part of the tomato (nightshade) family, tomatillos hide their light under a papery husk, or calyx, like a Chinese lantern plant (or the Cape gooseberry, which they are also very closely related to). Tomatillo is a berry (Physalis philadelphica or P. ixocarpa), full of tiny seeds.

Tomatoes, chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatillos just potted on
Tomatoes, chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatillos just potted on

How to grow tomatillos from seed

For an impulse buy, they’ve done me proud. I chose tomatillo Large Purple/Green, sowing them under the same conditions as tomatoes, with heat in a propagator (see here for more details).

They germinated quickly but also went leggy with heat normally OK for tomatoes – here’s how I fixed them. Available from The Real Seed Catalogue.

They aren’t self-pollinating, so grow at least two together. Always afraid of low temperatures in my North-East garden, I grew them in the greenhouse. Although I did get a reasonable crop, I feel they might have done better outdoors, even though the greenhouse doors were mostly kept open – one to try for next year.

Tomatillos
Tomatillos

How do I know when tomatillos are ripe?

When are they ripe? Fruit should be firm and bursting out of the husks. To cook them, remove the husks – they should just pop out.

It’s natural that they are sticky – just rinse them in warm water before cooking or eating.

Tomatillos come in a variety of colours and shapes. The commonest are the golf-ball-size green fruit used to make salsa verde.

The smaller, sweeter miltomates are purple and about the size of a marble.

Confusion over names

Their name and local variants can cause confusion. The word tomatillo translates as ‘little tomato’ in Spanish, from the Nahuatl word tomatl, but in modern Mexico, they are called ‘tomates verdes’ (green tomatoes).

Don’t mistake these for what European or US gardeners and cooks think of as green tomatoes – the unripe fruits of the ordinary tomato plant.

However, if you can’t get tomatillos, unripe green tomatoes are a reasonable substitute but only when cooked.

Tomatillos were domesticated by the Aztecs in about 800 BCE, and have been an important crop in Central America.

Thanks to its ability to self-sow, tomatillos grow semi-wild in western Mexico – ripe fruit drop to the ground and seed themselves.

Papery husks on tomatillos forming, July
Papery husks on tomatillos forming, July

Tomatillo taste and cooking

Tomatillos taste nothing like a tomato, which surprised me – there was a real tang, a hint of sweet, sour and citrus. They also don’t go soft even when ripe, unlike tomatoes.

You may be familiar with them as the main ingredient of salsa verde but they are also used in enchiladas, chilaquiles and many more Mexican dishes.

They are incredibly versatile, as they can be eaten raw, roasted, blended, and made into jam and preserves.

I’m afraid all I go around to was eating them raw (recommended) and in salsa verde – here’s my recipe.

Papery husks on tomatillos turning from green to beige, September
Papery husks on tomatillos turning from green to beige, September

Salsa verde recipe

  • 500g tomatillos
  • Salt
  • 1 chilli, seeded and sliced (I used Razzmatazz)
  • 1 bunch fresh coriander
  • 1 clove of garlic, sliced

Remove husks from tomatillos and rinse in warm water. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with water.

Add a pinch of salt and bring to a rapid boil. Lower heat and simmer until slightly soft, (4-5 minutes). Drain and keep the cooking liquid.

Add 120ml cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, along with the chilli, coriander, garlic, and cooked tomatillos. Blend briefly, until a coarse, chunky sauce forms. Add more salt to taste.

The salsa verde will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days, or it can be frozen in bags.

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Mandy Watson is a freelance journalist and an incurable plantaholic. MandyCanUDigIt grew from the tiny seed of a Twitter account into the rainforest of information you see before you. Gardening columnist for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail and editor of the Teesdale Mercury Magazine. Attracted by anything rebellious, exotic and nerdy, even after all these years. Passionate about northern England and gardens everywhere. Falls over a lot.

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