Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Little Green Fruit

 The unexpected and unexplained occurs every day in my garden. Some of these surprises are baffling - how could a Yucca torreyi which has lived in the front for more than 10 years suddenly die? Others are whimsical - a flowering stalk of spider lily (Lycoris radiata) jumped up outside the study window and neither of us recall planting it. And some are a gift, bounteous and undeserved, like this year’s tomatillo crop.

    Tomatillo is a member of the massive genus, Physalis, most of which are known as ground cherry. There are a number of species native to the Sonoran desert and all desert peoples before us ate them either cooked or raw. The ones we find in markets and eat with such relish, are most often indicated as Physalis ixocarpa but the taxonomy is nightmarish, and far from reliable.
    However, what is clear is that some form of tomatillo has been eaten in southern and central Mexico by both the Aztec and the Maya before them. In the language of the Aztec, Nahuatl, everything that vaguely looked like tomatoes was known as tomate with some kind of modifier attached to declare which was which. Hence, our tomato was called jitomate and our tomatillo was simply tomate or miltomate. These names are still used in Mexico although in some regions it is also called tomate verde. Once the tomato got to Spain someone got lazy and dropped the modifiers, turned it more Spanishy, and we have the word tomato. How the small green fruit of Physalis became christened tomatillo (little tomato) is still murky.
    Whatever its origins or name, it is a curious little fruit,enclosed in an inflated husk which it then grows to fill up and ultimately to break through. If you fail to find one in time and it rots away, it leaves a husk that looks like a fragile net on the ground.
    I first noticed them as mystery plants germinating in the vegetable bed in May. Lots of things find their way into these beds, and I always leave them until they grow up enough or flower to find out who they are. At first I thought they might be basil seedlings, and by the time it was obvious what they were there they numbered in the dozens.
    As the plants continued to grow over the summer I became more and more attached to them. Few things do well in the summer and often I grow crops in the vegetable garden just to keep the soil alive, usually relying on sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. I left them alone and they sprawled out to smother the two beds in which they grew, falling over the sides, climbing up leftover trellis’.
    In early September they began to flower exuberantly and fruit began to set. The plants repeated this cycle almost weekly until we were able to go out daily and come back with a handful or two of the sweetly tart fruit. They are still going, showing no sign of slowing down.
    I can only imagine that they arose from the compost pile. I planted tomatillo seed many times over the years and while they grew extravagantly I got no flowers or fruit from these efforts and quit a number of years ago. Now I am hooked, I want this crop every year so I have been leaving some of the fruit that got too ripe, or fell off, right where it lands in hope that there will another banner year, without my intervention, for this delectable, little green fruit.

In The Kitchen.
Tomatillo makes wonderful fresh salsa by simply blanching it or roasting it lightly, then chopping it with onion and hot peppers. It is irreplaceable in posole, and a green sauce made of it and other fresh peppers, onions, garlic and oregano makes delicious enchiladas, quesadillas or stew. There are green moles based on this fruit as well. The fruit freeze well, as does the sauce, so when the bounty is gone you can still enjoy it.

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