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Last Chance Foods: Introducing Purple Tomatillos

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For those of us unaccustomed to cooking with tomatillos, they can be a bit of a mystery. The obvious facts are these: They kind of look like tomatoes, but are not, and they’re a key ingredient in salsa verde.

Riverpark chef Sisha Ortúzar grew up in Santiago, Chile, and admits that he only had passing familiarity with tomatillos until farmer Zach Pickens starting growing them for the restaurant.

Pickens chose to plant purple tomatillos from seeds he’d saved with his farmer friends at Brooklyn Grange. “I don’t see them too much elsewhere at the market," he said. “You’ll see maybe a couple people at Union Square that will have them, but they’re pretty rare and they’re hard to find, so that’s why we were growing them at the farm.”

Ortúzar explained that the purple tomatillos also have an advantage over the more common green variety. “[Purple tomatillos] are kind of sweet,” he said. “It reminds me a lot of a plum, so something between a tomato and a plum. And because the acidity level is a lot lower, you can eat them raw and they work really well.”

Purple tomatillos taste a little more like sweet and nutty ground cherries, which are small, yellow, similarly husked relatives. “They’re actually in the same genus and species so I guess you could call them cousins,” Pickens explained. “Both grow the same way: You get the husk first and the fruit will fill it out as it matures. Ground cherries just happen to grow faster and, like, more abundantly.”

(Photo: Zach Pickens and Sisha Ortúzar/Courtesy Becca PR)

Both purple tomatillos and ground cherries are sweet enough to be eaten raw. Ortúzar even pairs the two in seasonal twist on the classic tomato, basil and mozzarella combo. The recipe for his version, Purple Tomatillos and Ground Cherries with Burrata, is below.

He added that tomatillos do have a tendency to get a little slimy when subject to heat, but that quality also makes them ideal for salsa verde. “They’re really good for that application because of the really high pectin content,” Ortúzar explained. “So when you cook them and you make a salsa, it kind of thickens itself a little bit.”

Tomatillos, tomatoes, and ground cherries are all considered nightshade plants. And while Ortúzar said he has served cooked tomato leaves, it bears warning: they might be poisonous raw or in great quantities.

Public service warning aside, tomatillo plants are fairly hardy, and the pair said that Riverpark’s tomatillos fared even better than their tomatoes.

“I think that [purple tomatillos] are rare just because people don’t know [about] them, and there’s not that demand for them,” Ortúzar mused. “They’re not any harder to grow than anything else. Actually, I think they grow really well.”

Purple Tomatillos and Ground Cherries with Burrata
by Riverpark 

Towards the end of summer, after the peak of the heat and humidity, we start harvesting purple tomatillos. Unlike the green ones (which are delicious, but tart when raw) purple ones are sweet, so we use them raw, along with ground cherries and lemon verbena that are still in season. This dish is a unique and delicious alternative to tomatoes and burrata—and just as simple to prepare.

Serves 4 as an appetizer

  • ¼ cup grapeseed oil
  • ¼ cup lemon verbena (loosely packed), thinly sliced into a chiffonade
  • 1 teaspoon finely diced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Lemon and lime zest
  • 9 small-medium purple tomatillos (about 15 oz), removed from their husks and cleaned
  • 1 pint ground cherries (about 5 oz), removed from their husks and cleaned
  • 2 burrata (about 8 oz)
  • Kosher salt
  • Coarsely ground black pepper 

At least 15 minutes before serving, make the vinaigrette by combining the oil, lemon verbena, shallot, lemon juice, and citrus zests and kosher salt to taste.

Slice the tomatillos into quarters, and arrange the pieces onto a serving platter. Slice the ground cherries in half and scatter them onto the same platter. Slice the burrata into quarters and place the cheese on top. Spoon over the vinaigrette, and finish with coarsely ground black pepper.