Smuggled Treasure, or the Things I’ll Do for a Good Tomatillo Salsa

I don’t think I actually engaged in smuggling, but I thought about it for a while.  One afternoon last March, I risked life and limb to cross a scary four-lane highway in Peachtree City, Georgia – it’s a pleasant little town, but it would be greatly improved with some sidewalks and crosswalks for people who don’t ride around in a golf cart.  Why would I brave such a dangerous trek?  I was hoping the garden center on the other side of the road from my hotel would have some tomatillo seeds in stock, and it was my lucky day!  The store had two packages, and I bought them both.  Fresh tomatillos are rare in Germany, so I thought I would try to grow my own.  I bravely darted back across the highway and excitedly told a couple of colleagues about my successful expedition.  Then one of them wished me luck taking the seeds back home to Germany, since she’d just had a Washington-grown Golden Delicious apple that she’d purchased in Germany confiscated when we landed in Atlanta a few days before (it still had the Washington sticker on it!).

Well, I wasn’t expecting a complication like that.  I thought about where I could best hide the seed packets in my suitcase and fretted all evening over the realization that I was really contemplating the first step in what could become a life of crime.…but fortunately it occurred to me to see if it was even against German law to bring seeds into the country.  My internet search did not lead me to a definitive answer, but I did come across several companies that ship home garden seeds from the U.S. to Germany, so I figured I was OK.  To ease the last pangs of my conscience, I decided to put the packets in the mesh pocket on the outside of my bag where they were in plain sight and hand the seeds over if asked.  In Frankfurt there were security dogs sniffing all around in the baggage claim but they ignored my bag, and when I walked through the customs line, the agent didn’t even look at me.  Whew!

Although the climate in Germany is not much like that of the tomatillo’s native Mexican habitat, the plants did really well.  I started the seeds in little peat pots in April, transplanted four of them to big pots on the terrace about six weeks later, and gave the rest of the plants to friends who are now also happy tomatillo producers.  These tomatillos are really easy to grow, and ours thrived despite being left on their own and watered with a timer for three weeks in July.  If you have room to tuck a couple of plants into your garden or some patio pots, you should do it next year!  If tomatoes grow where you live, tomatillos will do equally well.  However, you can find tomatillos in most American grocery stores year round if you prefer not to take up gardening, and tomatillo salsa is a nice change of pace with chips and delicious in dishes such as enchiladas suizas or chilaquiles (recipes coming soon).  The salsa is also great on grilled chicken or fish, and it keeps in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Last week we had a hard wind and rain that knocked a lot of my tomatillos off the plants, so I had a big bunch of tomatillos at once and decided to can some of my triple batch of salsa.   I have seen water-bath canner tomatillo salsa recipes, but they all contain quite a bit of vinegar or more lime juice than I like in order to make the salsa acidic enough for water-bath canning.  There are some dangers I don’t laugh in the face of, and botulism is one of them – so I recommend pressure canning if you want to put up this salsa in jars (heat the salsa to boiling before filling hot jars, and process for 35 minutes at high pressure for ½ pint jars; increase time for altitude if needed).

Many recipes say to boil the tomatillos, but I like them much better roasted like this.  I’m not so crazy about garlic and onions, so the proportion is fairly small in my recipe; of course, add more if you like.  For this batch of salsa I used jalapeños plus a few mystery chiles from a plant a couple of friends gave me (labeled scharf, or hot, but that is the German interpretation of the flavor – they are somewhat milder than a jalapeño but very tasty).

Tomatillo Salsa

  • 12-15 tomatillos, husks removed
  • 3-6 jalapeño peppers or other hot chile (quantity depends on your taste and how hot the chiles are)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • ¼ sweet onion, sliced
  • 10-12 whole cumin seeds or ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon coriander, freshly course ground if possible
  • ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • Juice of 1 lime or 2-3 tablespoons bottled lime juice
  • 2-3 tablespoons cilantro leaves and fine stems
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes if desired

Put the husked tomatillos in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes and then rinse to remove the sticky residue.  Place the tomatillos, chiles, garlic, and onion on a foil-lined baking sheet along with the cumin seeds and coriander (you can dump the seeds in one spot on the foil rather than sprinkling over the vegetables – the idea is for the warm liquid that will seep out of the tomatillos to become infused with the cumin and coriander; if you only have pre-ground spices, wait and add them when you mix the salsa).

Roast under a hot broiler until everything starts to turn brown, 8-10 minutes.  Remove from oven and wrap a corner of the foil up over the chiles for a few minutes to steam the skins loose, then pull the skins off and cut off the stems.  I usually don’t bother with removing the seeds, but you can if you want the salsa to be less picante.

Put the chiles, onion, garlic, and half the tomatillos in the blender and pour in the liquid and cumin/coriander that is left on the foil; blend until the mixture is smooth.  Add the remaining tomatillos, lime juice, cilantro, salt, and red pepper flakes; blend on low until everything is mixed in but still slightly chunky if you are serving the salsa with chips.  If you plan to use it to make enchiladas or chilaquiles, you can go ahead and blend to a smooth puree.  All the Mexican cooks I know make this tomatillo salsa in a blender or food processor, but a molcajete (basalt mortar and pestle) also works really well, and I like to use mine to prepare and serve the salsa if I’m making a small batch.

Yield: about 3 cups.


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2 thoughts on “Smuggled Treasure, or the Things I’ll Do for a Good Tomatillo Salsa

  1. Nena says:

    Oh goodness, I craved salsa verde when I was in Germany. I felt so deprived and out of place just because I couldn’t get my fix! 😉
    So glad you didn’t get caught, but I do know many seed shops on Etsy that do shipments internationally! So that’s where I’ll look when I move to Geneva soon. Thanks for the recipe!

    • Nena,
      Thanks for reading and also for the Etsy tip! I’ve recently moved from Germany to Puerto Rico. I do see tomatillos in the stores here but not much of a chile selection (especially not super-picante). Since the climate here is good for pepper plants I think I’ll try growing several varieties.
      Enjoy living in Switzerland!

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