Tomatillos

Although related to the tomato, the tomatillo is not a green tomato. Its bright green orb has bright, tart notes and filled with seeds. 

For the past nine years, I have been teaching cooking classes at Rancho la Puerta, a wellness resort in Tecate, Mexico, a border town southeast of San Diego. Located on a six-acre farm, the cooking school, known as La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen that Sings), has a front-seat view of Mt. Kuchumaa, a sacred mountain range of indelible beauty.

At its mountainous elevation, the farm has four distinct seasons, all of which I have been fortunate to experience. My favorite: the liminal space between summer and fall, when the farm is flush with tomatoes and every imaginable pepper, both sweet and hot. Everywhere you look, there are salsa fixins for days. Like a pesky brother, head gardener Salvador Tinajero tricks me with chiles that are far spicier than promised, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rancho La Puerta cooks

Food writer Kim O'Donnel with Denise Roa (center, glasses),  former executive chef of Rancho la Puerta and her team in 2016.

Over the years, I became very close with former executive chef Denise Roa and her team of women cooks, all whom I have come to consider sisters. It is Denise who taught me how to make various fresh salsas, and it is I who taught her how to preserve summer produce with the water-bath method. When like-minded cooks meet, this kind of exchange is inevitable.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the resort remains closed, which means I will not be joining my hermanas de la cocina in early October, as originally planned. We stay in touch via WhatsApp, and some day, hopefully soon, we will cook together again.

Rancho la Puerta gardener

Food writer Kim O'Donnel with head gardener Salvador Tinajero,  at Las Estrellas, the organic farm at La Cocina Que Canta in 2015.

As in northern Baja, it is prime salsa season in central PA, but locally, that time will soon come to an end. If you have a hankering for fresh salsa from in-season tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers, I urge you to seize the moment because the produce does not wait.

North Americans on the north side of the border like their salsa with chips, a pairing of far less interest in Mexico. Instead, it’s thought of as a condiment, the sparkle that it brings to a bowl of beans, a plate of eggs, a sauce for grilled fish or meat, and a vital element of the table.

In the spirit of salsa beyond the chip, I present two fresh salsas for eating in the moment and two preserved variations for wishful thinking in the dead of winter. I have included tomatillos, a personal favorite that I have been growing for the past several years, because in my opinion, there is nothing better than garden-grown salsa verde in January.

Pico de gallo

Raw tomato salsa known as pico de gallo ("rooster's beak" in Spanish). 

Fresh Pico de Gallo 

Makes 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups.

Amounts may be halved.

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion, very finely chopped (Substitute: 3 to 4 scallions, roots removed, white and light green parts thinly sliced)
  • 1 to 2 chile peppers of choice, mostly seeded and very finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, plus more as needed
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

Directions:

With a teaspoon or your fingers, remove the seeds from the tomato halves. Cut each half into julienned strips, then dice the strips.

Place in a bowl by themselves and let rest for 10 minutes to release any remaining juice and seeds.

Place the onion, chile peppers, lime juice and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a medium bowl. Drain the tomatoes as needed (Cook’s treat: Drink the juice!), then combine with the other ingredients. Stir until evenly mixed and taste for salt and acidity, adding more as needed. Add the cilantro, if using. The flavors should feel fresh in the mouth.

Eat the same day the salsa is prepared.

Salsa in jars

Tomatillo and tomato salsa, preserved with the water-bath method.

Preserved Tomato Salsa

Makes about 2 pints.

Adapted from “Put’em Up!” by Sherry Brooks Vinton.

A few notes:

  • With the additional acid from the vinegar, this recipe is safe for water-bath canning. Before you make the salsa, gather your canning tools and prepare a water bath to heat jars. For details, check out Kim O'Donnel's step-by-step guide.
  • Keep in mind that the resulting flavor is far more acidic than fresh salsa. It kind of reminds me of stewed tomatoes, something my mom might put on top of a meat loaf or over rice.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar (5 percent acidity)
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 pounds tomatoes, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 to 2 jalapeño or serrano chile peppers, finely chopped (for milder results, remove seeds)
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion (from about 1 medium onion)
  • Optional: 1/2 to 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Directions:

Peel tomatoes by blanching: With a paring knife, make an X incision on the bottom of each tomato. Have a bowl of ice water at the ready. In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over high heat. In batches, carefully add the tomatoes and boil until the skins start to buckle and peel away, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes to the ice water.

When tomatoes are cool to the touch, remove the skins and core. Slice in half lengthwise, and with a spoon, remove the seeds. Cut each half into julienned strips, then dice the strips.

Place the vinegar, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, just until the sugar and salt is dissolved. Add the tomatoes, chile peppers and onions, stirring until combined. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a gentle boil, cooking for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in cilantro, if using.

Fill hot pint jars with salsa, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Remove any air bubbles and wipe clean the rim of the jars. Place lid and ring on top and process for 15 minutes. Transfer jars to a towel-lined staging area and let cool for at least 12 hours. Label and date and store in a cool, dark place. Sealed jars keep for 12 to 18 months. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Fresh Tomatillo Salsa

Makes about 3 cups.

Ingredients:

  • 6 to 10 tomatillos, depending on size
  • 1/2 medium onion, root intact
  • 1 jalapeño or serrano chile pepper
  • 1 to 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Squeeze of 1/2 lime
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Optional: 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

Directions:

Remove the tomatillo husks and discard. Wash tomatillos under warm water to remove any sticky residue.

To char, place the tomatillos in a single layer in a skillet (or on a sheet pan for the broiler) along with the onion and chile pepper, if there’s room. (Char in batches if not.) Place over high and cook until the tomatillos are charred on all sides. Set aside to cool. When chile peppers are cool, remove skins (the spine edge of a paring knife is helpful), seeds and veins. Remove the root from the onion. (If you are not charring, proceed to next step.)

Place the tomatillos in a food processor or stand blender, and pulse until blended but with some texture remaining. Add the onion, chile pepper and garlic and blend, again allowing for some texture. Add the salt, lime juice, water and cilantro, if using. Taste for salt and add more as needed.

Eat right away.

Preserved Tomatillo Salsa

Adapted from “Well-Preserved” by Eugenia Bone.

Makes about 2 1/2 pints.

Note: With the additional acid from the lemon juice, this recipe is safe for water-bath canning. Before you make the salsa, gather your canning tools and prepare a water bath to heat jars. For details, check out Kim O'Donnel's step-by-step guide.


Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed and washed
  • 1 jalapeño chile pepper
  • 1 poblano or Cubanelle chile pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 6 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt

Directions:

Char the tomatillos and chile peppers under the broiler or in a cast-iron skillet until black on all sides. When cool, remove the skins, seeds and veins of peppers and roughly chop. (If not charring, move to the next step.)

Place the tomatillos and chiles in a food processor or stand blender, and pulse until blended but with some texture remaining. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the onion, lemon juice and salt. Over medium heat, cook until the mixture is gently bubbling, about 15 minutes.

Fill hot pint jars with salsa, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. Remove any air bubbles and wipe clean the rim of the jars. Place lid and ring on top and process for 15 minutes. Transfer jars to a towel-lined staging area and let cool for at least 12 hours. Label and date and store in a cool, dark place. Sealed jars keep for 12 to 18 months. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.