According to farmer Ron Backer of Brewster, there’s only one fruit meant for salsa. The surprising thing is that it’s not a tomato.
“The tomatillos are what you really make salsa from,” Ron says.
Tomatillos are those green, tomato-like fruits that grow in a paper husk. With the husk on, they look sort of like beige Chinese lantern flowers, but once that’s peeled off, it’s easy to confuse the green fruit with an un-ripe tomato. Ron says that’s for good reason.
“It’s also in the selenium family which tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are in and nightshade which is very poisonous.”
Ron says there are several varieties of tomatillos: a Latin American one and an Eastern European variety that comes from Poland.
Botanists believe tomatillos originated in central Mexico, and the varieties from that region are still the most popular. The fruits come in various shades of purple, yellow, and green, depending on the variety and how ripe they are, and are also known as husk tomatoes or jamberries. Tomatillos will grow on Cape Cod, but Ron says it’s important to plant them in full sun.
“Ours grow about 5 feet tall—very prolific and our bees love their blossoms. It takes a while so that there’s sort of like a chrysalis like appearance to it which means like a cocoon around it and then you peel it back.”
And inside the husk, the fruit is smooth to the touch and a little bit sticky. It feels firmer than a tomato, and when you cut it open, the flesh inside is pale green, almost white, and very meaty. Ron says because they’re so firm, tomatillos make a better salsa once they’re cooked.
”Most people when they make salsa make it with tomatoes and onions and peppers sort of like a solid gazpacho or a grated gazpacho but these are really the true salsa you can roast these and make a wonderful salsa verde with this.”
When I ask Ron why he thinks tomatillos are better for salsa than tomatoes, he says it’s all about flavor. Tomatillos have an acidic, zingy bite that’s very different from what you taste in a ripe tomato.
“You have to learn about bitter and tart we’re too much into sweet and sugar which is all the way they dispose of corn byproducts so I like that flavor and that flavor was a traditional part of Latin American cuisine where they cultivate that sensitivity.”
Ron shared his recipe for tart salsa verde with me. He uses garlic, cilantro, a few hot peppers, and plenty of roasted ripe tomatillos. He says he didn’t have a great year for tomatillos, but several other farmers at the Wellfleet and Orleans farmers markets are selling the fruit. Tomatillos are just coming into season and should be around for the next few weeks.
This piece first aired in 2011.