A Recipe for Tacubaya’s Tomatillo and Jalapeño Sauce
Dress up lots of dishes with this hardy tomato kin.
The tomato-related tomatillo is a hearty Mexican staple that find its way into many dishes.
Photo by Lori Eanes
There were two reasons that tomatillos were one of the inaugural crops when Marsha Habib launched her then-1-acre organic farm in Hollister in 2010.
First, the farm was originally started in conjunction with food justice groups in San Jose as a way to establish rural-urban connections for the South Bay Latino population, and so it made sense to grow one of the staple ingredients of that community’s traditional diet. Second, they were coming up anyway.
“It turns out that if one Mexican farmer had ever planted them, the whole land would be infested with tomatillos, and they would come up together with any other crop,” Habib said. “It has so many seeds, that if a few fruits don’t get harvested, all those seeds go back into the soil and re-crop.”
Tomatillos it seems are particularly hearty — a trait they have in common with Habib herself, who after funding for her farm was cut early on, stuck to her guns and expanded Oya Organics into an 18-acre, fully diversified operation over the last eight years. That hardiness combined with drought resistance helps to explain why they have traditionally been such an important staple of the diet in Mexico, where they are native and widely grown. Related to the tomato but smaller and less sweet — Habib described the bright flavor as “more acidic with a tangy almost fruity flavor” — they are a versatile food that can be used in any manner of ways.
One of the most common uses is in a “verde” sauce in which the tomatillos are cooked, puréed, and blended with garlic, salt, onions, and peppers. The salsa is a staple on the menu at Oakland’s Doña Tomas and the newly expanded Tacubaya on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, said co-owner Dona Savitski. It’s used to top quesadillas and sopes, on grilled meats and fish, as a base for soups and stews, and in classic Mexican dishes like chilaquiles verdes.
You’ll generally find two varieties, said Habib, explaining that the standard green tomatillos or tomatillos verdes are larger, uniformly green, and the ones most widely available in larger supermarkets. The Milperos are smaller, more grape-sized, with a color that ranges from green to purplish. Habib grows both, but she prefers the flavor and less watery texture of the Milperos, which can be found at Mexican grocers and some farmers markets.
Either way, you’ll have to remove and discard the tomatillos’ papery husk and before using them, in addition to rinsing off the sticky film with warm water — it’s obviously more time consuming to do this with the smaller ones, which may explain why they aren’t more popular. The good news is that the husk helps tomatillos keep for weeks even when not refrigerated. It’s hard to go wrong in picking out these rugged little fruits, said Habib, but when picking them out, shoppers should look for a relatively healthy, not-too-dry husk and a firm texture. They’re available, like tomatoes, from June through November.
Tacubaya’s Tomatillo and Jalapeño Sauce
4 cups tomatillos
4 cloves garlic
2 jalapeño chiles, with seeds, stemmed and halved
1 white onion, sliced
About 2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups water or chicken stock
Soak the tomatillos in cold water for a few minutes, then peel off and discard the husks. Drain the tomatillos and place them in a stainless steel saucepan with the garlic, jalapeño, onion, salt, and just enough water to cover the ingredients. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the tomatillos lose their vibrant green color and the garlic and onion become partially translucent and softened. Remove from the heat as soon as the skins of 1 or 2 tomatillos begin to split. Working in batches if necessary, transfer to a blender and purée on high speed until smooth. Adjust the seasoning with salt as necessary. Transfer to a bowl. The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to two days, but should be brought to room temperature before using.