Getting to Know Tomatillos

November 9, 2020 Updated: November 9, 2020

For a long time, I steered clear of tomatillos—not because of an aversion, but I simply didn’t know what do with them. Well, I am here to tell you that these little tomato-esque “vegetables” are easy to use and a delight to eat. Their flavor is tart and vegetal with a hint of fruit, and they add pucker-y brightness to salsas and stews.

Tomatillos are in fact classified as a fruit (like tomatoes) and are a member of the nightshade family. They are wrapped in a papery husk, which, when removed, reveals a crab apple-sized green fruit that resembles a tomato. Tomatillos are native to Central America, which helps to explain why they are a prominent ingredient in salsas. If you’ve had a green salsa or salsa verde, then you’ve had a tomatillo.

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Tomatillos are wrapped in a papery husk, which, when removed, reveals a crab apple-sized green fruit that resembles a tomato. (Olga Popova/Shutterstock)

A fresh tomatillo should be firm, unblemished, and bright green in color. They can be eaten raw or cooked. When eaten raw, their tartness will be pronounced. Roasting tempers their acidity, coaxing out their natural sweetness, while adding a smoky, charred note.

To prepare a tomatillo, remove the paper husk and wash the fruit to remove the sticky film that coats the surface. When roasting, halve the tomatillos crosswise and broil, cut side down (or grill skin side up) to get a light char on the skins. You want those skins in the salsa for the extra flavor.

The salsa in this recipe can be enjoyed straight up on a chip, spooned over tacos and casseroles, and dolloped over grilled meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables. In this recipe, it’s the base for a simple and bright chicken stew. For extra depth of flavor, I’ve marinated the chicken in citrus and herbs to amplify the salsa.

Tomatillo salsa
Tart and vegetal with a hint of fruit, tomatillos add pucker-y brightness to salsas and stews. (Lynda Balslev for TasteFood)

Tomatillo Chicken Stew

Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour, plus marinating time

Serves 4 to 6

For the Marinade

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, halved

For the Salsa

  • 1 pound tomatillos
  • 1 to 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded, halved lengthwise
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 small white onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small poblano pepper, seeded, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup packed cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

To Assemble

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Cooked long-grain rice
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
  • Chopped cilantro for garnish

Marinate the chicken: Whisk the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Make the salsa: Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos. Rinse the tomatillos to remove the sticky film. Halve the tomatillos cross-wise and arrange with the jalapeños, cut sides down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Place under the oven broiler and broil until the skins are lightly charred, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly and then combine the tomatillos, jalapeños, and the remaining salsa ingredients in a food processor and pulse to achieve a salsa consistency.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Remove the chicken from the marinade and discard the marinade. In batches, cook the chicken on both sides to give them a little color, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Pour the salsa into the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Nestle the chicken into the salsa. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 25 minutes.

To serve, ladle the chicken and sauce over the rice. Serve garnished with the scallions and cilantro.

Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her Danish husband, two children, a cat, and a dog. Lynda studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and worked as a personal chef, culinary instructor, and food writer in Switzerland and Denmark. Copyright 2020 Lynda Balslev. Distributed by Andrew McMeel Syndication.