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I’ve Never Seen a Purple Cow…


Daughterperson and I were cruising the aisles at the local Lowe’s garden center over her spring break, ostensibly to gather vital gardening supplies but in fact we were avoiding digging in the garden. Suddenly she comes over and shows me a packet of seeds. Interesting, I thought; tomatillos. Then I read the front a bit more carefully. Purple tomatillos!

I didn’t know they came in purple.

I’ve used tomatillos in salsa for chips and for enchiladas since I don’t know when. They’re an easy vegetable to cook with, once you get used to them. Some people think they’re simply green tomatoes; not so. Yes, they’re related to the tomato, in the sense that all the plants of the deadly nightshade family are related.

The tomatillo has this interesting, paper-thin husk on the outside. Tomatoes don’t. That’s one difference. The other is flavor. Tomatillos are more intense, astringent, puckery-flavored. At least the green ones are. Generally they aren’t that great eaten fresh (uncooked). The outside of the fruit, after you remove the husk, has a waxy feel. Once the tomatillo is yellow it’s ripe, and the incisive, acidic taste is a bit toned down.

Most recipes I’ve seen that call for tomatillos specify green ones.

What about other colors? Well, a close cousin to the tomatillo, the Chinese Lantern, comes in red, orange and other colors. They’re both from the Physalis genus, where the tomato is found in the Solanum genus. (There’s your trivia for the day! Your job now is to squeeze these important facts into dinner chit-chat with your family. Or you can go for full points and work it into your next party patter.)

One reason tomatoes weren’t eaten for a long time is they were thought to be deadly poison; they’re related to Belladonna, after all, which can be used to make poison arrows. (Kids, don’t try this at home! Just. Don’t.) Poison arrows made from tomatoes or tomatillos don’t work so well, though. Tomatillos have been cultivated for at least 1200 years, maybe more, by the inhabitants of central America.

Purple Tomatillos

The Chinese Lantern plant is mostly ornamental. The fruits are small and the papery husk is see-through, creating a beautiful effect. Yes, you can eat the Chinese Lantern, and they’re quite sweet, tasting more like a cherry than a tomato. I’ve never heard of using Chinese Lantern in cooking; maybe an area for investigation? I bet they could be used like the Cape Gooseberry (genus Peruviana), which is another edible relative. Interestingly, this plant has a flower very like that of an okra; not at all like a tomato!

So what about the purple tomatillos that got us started? Well, they can be used in any recipe calling for tomatillos, of course. Turns out, though, they’re less acidic and sweeter. They can be eaten uncooked. And they’re not difficult to cultivate.

There’s an unusual feature of the tomatillo, though. If you have only one plant, you never get any fruit! They’re self-incompatible, which means one plant needs pollen from another to produce fruit. Otherwise it’s simply an interesting, flowering plant.

Tomatillos are known to be very vigorous, and they will grow without limit if you let them. They’re more like an indeterminate tomato, which will grow and grow until you kill it (or Mother Nature does, with a freeze or such). Same with Chinese Lanterns; however, these plants are more like mint in that they will send out rhizomes and spread out, taking over the garden, your lawn and more, if you let them. Better to grow them in a large pot! That way you can control the spreading little beggars.

So to make a short story long, we’re trying out some purple tomatillos. We’ll have updates, provided I can get the seedlings lit and actually keep them alive long enough to produce fruit. If this works, though, imagine the enchilada sauce, the salsas…

Enjoy the (Odd-Colored Veggie) Heat!


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