on the trail of tomatillos: podcast, and a giveaway

Tomatillo ripening on the vineADD THEM TO THE LIST of plants I suddenly noticed are MIA—things I “always” grew but haven’t lately. The latest “where did they go?” crop: tomatillos. I’m determined to master a salsa recipe to can or freeze this year, particularly a green one, or salsa verde. That’s why tomatillos, which self-sowed here for a decade before disappearing who knows why or exactly when, are on the to-grow list in 2013. Some how-to—including on my weekly radio show, where I get advice from my friend Gayla Trail—plus a giveaway of a whole salsa-garden seed kit.

prefer the podcast?

TOMATILLOS AND SALSA, and some unusual relatives of the tomatillo, were the subject of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program, with guest Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl [dot] com. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday  about 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The February 18, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year in March, and is available for syndication by other public-radio stations via PRX.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa or P. philadelphica, depending which variety you grow) are cousin to the tomato and other solanaceous crops or nightshades, such as peppers, potatoes, and eggplants. But it’s much easier to see their even closer relationship to the Chinese lantern, Physalis alkekengi, a somewhat-thuggish perennial that’s wonderful dried, with its papery orange husks (the lanterns, technically the calyx).

Gayla of You Grow Girl [dot] com  is a mad canner who also admits to an obsession with solanums—“even including just-on-the-verge-of-edible ones,” she says—so I knew the plain old edible tomatillo and salsa would be a great topic for us.

growing tomatillos

IN GAYLA’S Toronto, Ontario, location and mine in New York State, tomatillos that set fruit will then self-sow the coming year (assuming some fruit is left in the garden to do so). But we don’t get enough early heat to prompt those seedlings to get up and growing in time to accommodate the long season a tomatillo prefers, and that means a short, reduced harvest—unless we start inside, Gayla reminded me (she has a full how-to on her blog). She likes to sow up to 8 weeks ahead of her frost-free date indoors under lights.

Even Pattie Boudier, co-founder of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply in much milder Zone 8 in Northern California, agrees a headstart can be beneficial.

“My property is a little microclimate, and some years there is a tendency for a late start to the heat needed for the nightshade family,” she says. “But unless there is a hail storm in the fall, they look great and produce until the first frost since our summers are typically long, like until October.”

Tomatillos can be left to sprawl, but staking them is better, keeping the fruit up off the ground (and at least away from slugs if not chipmunks!). Or put them in tomato cages–big ones. Gayla has grown various yellow, green and purple varieties of tomatillos in the ground and also in containers some years, so even small-space gardeners can accommodate a plant or two. In the ground, space them 2-3 feet apart.

I highly recommend having an extra plant so you can pilfer the occasional flowering, fruit-setting shoot for cottagey floral arrangements—something I also like to do with developing sprays of cherry tomatoes.

As for my salsa quest, Gayla recommends a not-too-hot pepper as part of the mix, such as an ancho (a.k.a. poblano), or maybe ‘Pasilla Bajio’ (which we managed to spell wrong on the radio, but is also used in mole sauces and turns the darkest purple when ripe).

Interested in trying other edible Physalis? Gayla always makes room for ground cherries, with an orange-citrus-pineapple flavor, and also for cape gooseberries (P. peruviana)—their flavor is citrusy, too. The latter needs to be started very early if you’re up north. With the ground cherries, there are various species, some hardier than others. Both ground cherries and cape gooseberries are favorites in jams, or just eaten right in the garden.

And then there are those barely edible ones that really get plant-mad Gayla going—some crazy-thorny and all Little Shop of Horrors-ish, even. For more on that, I recommend the podcast.

how to win the seed collection

salsa seed kitTHERE ARE 2 WAYS TO WIN, and each of the winners chosen at random will win one Salsa Fiesta Collection Gift Seed Tin courtesy of Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, a sponsor here at A Way to Garden. The gift set contains seed from 10 different vegetables and herbs that can be grown to make several different types of salsa, including both a purple and a green tomatillo. (UPDATE: Giveaway finished in February 2013!)

All you have to do to enter is answer the following question in the comments below:

Do you make your own homegrown salsa? Please share your hints, tips, and favorite ingredients, or go ahead and just say “Count me in” if you’re feeling shy.

(My answer: F-A-I-L. It’s always too hot to eat! But this year I will nail it.)

After commenting below, click over to Gayla’s tomatillo post at You Grow Girl, and comment there for a second chance at the prize. You can just cut and paste your comment if you like–but don’t miss the chance to enter there, too.

Winners will be drawn randomly after entries close at midnight on Monday, February 25, and informed by email. (U.S. residents only for this event.)

Thanks again to Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, in the business of providing supplies for organic gardening since 1976, for their support of You Grow Girl and A Way to Garden.

  1. brenda duncan says:

    I make both tomato and green tomato salsa, but my family likes the green tomato salsa best. I just take all the green tomatoes at the end of the season and use them to make salsa. I would love to try it with tomatillos.

  2. Tricia says:

    I make a simple mango, red onion, tomato and cilantro salsa, with lime juice, that always goes over really wherever I take it. Would like to try growing some ingredients for other kinds of salsa.

  3. Andrea says:

    Yes – I love making my own salsa from the garden! I usually make more of a pico de gallo-type salsa with a rough chop on the veggies. Maybe I’m too lazy to get out the food processor! But I like the burst of flavor in every bite. Anyway, I’ve tried growing tomatillos in my garden, but I never get any fruit before winter comes. The plant is started early indoors and I plant outside after frost. I get TONS of flowers…but no fruit – not even tiny little baby tomatillos. I heard that you need two plants so they can pollinate each other….is this true?

  4. julie says:

    I love salsa, especially the fruity kind, like with mango. I love cilantro in it. And corn, and black beans. It’s all good. I like a medium heat, enough to feel, not overwhelming.

  5. Sue Jenn says:

    I am still looking for a good tomatillo salsa recipe. Yes, I grow them every year. Just have to find the little plants coming up. I use them in pastas which are mostly a bunch of garden veggies over pasta. Yumm! Always different depending on what gets picked. I have some greenish tomatillos sitting on a platter right now waiting to be uses. Picked green, I ripen them up in egg cartons. I picked them in December before we had a hard freeze. Many were small, but who cares.

  6. Joyce Mosby says:

    We make salsa from tomatoes, peppers, onions and lime juice. we still haven’t come up with a “to die for” recipe. I would love to try tomatillos again in my garden.

  7. Kris says:

    Count me in. Tomatillos roasted for salsa is to die for. Trying a new variety this year called “Pineapple”. Should be interesting with some heat added!

  8. Josie says:

    Yes, by all means count me in. I have made salsa of many kinds. I Love the tomattios and their fresh tart taste. Roasting them for salsa is great. I had some for a few years keep coming back, now they are all gone. Time to start with a new batch so I can make more salsa verda and salsa. Another way we enjoy them is stuffed and baked…Yummy…….

  9. Dawn C says:

    I just saw a chef cooking on our local news from a restaurant named Slide in downtown NYC… he was offering RoastedTomatillo Ketchup with sliders! Something other than salsa to do with your tomatillos!

  10. margaret says:

    ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED. Thanks for all your comments — and more salsa and tomatillo tips are always welcome, even though the giveaway’s done. The prize goes to:

    Mary Margaret Dabe (who will be notified by email).

  11. perta says:

    I have had a lot of fun growing tomatillos for the last several years. Favorite is smaller purple tomatillo. Starting plants inside is the only way I have found to enjoy fresh salsa
    during the summer. Otherwise the harvest was in late August & Sept.
    The NY times had a roasted salsa that I really like and freeze to enjoy through the winter.
    1 pound tomatillos, husked
    1 jalapeño
    1 small or ½ large red or sweet onion, sliced ½-inch thick
    ½ to ¾ cup chopped cilantro

    Canola or olive oil, for the grill.

    1. Light a grill. (If you are lighting charcoal, use plenty of it.) When the grill is hot, cook the tomatillos, jalapeño and onion slices, taking them off the heat when they are soft and charred. Remove the skin and seeds from the jalapeño and roughly purée it with the tomatillos in a blender or food processor. Transfer to a serving bowl. Chop the onion slices and stir them into the salsa verde with the cilantro. Season well with salt.

  12. Joyce Davies says:

    I tried Tomatillo-Apple Salsa this year as another attempt to get rid of my bounty of tart apples – apple sauce, apple pie, apple jelly, etc. etc. I will definitely plant Tomatillos next year.

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