Tomatillos are a spherical green or green-purple fruit that is often included in the tomato family. Actually, it is related to the gooseberry and is a staple in Mexican cuisine. I discovered tomatillos some 25 or so years ago on a fishing expedition to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. My group of adventurers was moving camp from Magdalena Bay on the Pacific Ocean side to San Lucas cove, south of Santa Rosalita, on the Sea of Cortez. We stopped to look around and buy provisions in a modest market in the inland oasis town of San Ignacio. I filled my wicker basket with green bananas, pungent smelling onions, tomatoes, limes, garlic and cilantro. All would keep for a few days. In front of me was a small green tomato-like fruit covered with a gray-brown paper husk. I held one up in bewilderment. A local lady shopper, flashed a brilliant white toothed smile at the gringo and said, “Muy bueno.” I grabbed a sackful.
We set up a shoreline camp under several thatched roof palapas and anchored our boats a hundred feet offshore. One of our guys found a huge hatch cover plank several hundred yards down the shore. We dragged it into place and it became our in-ocean dishwashing and prep table.
Our plan was to eat fresh caught fish every day. Breakfast was bananas, sweet churros and Mexican coffee. Lunch was ceviche made with cabrilla, grouper, onions, garlic and fresh squeezed lime juice served on saltine crackers. Diner also came straight from the sea. Often our boat came back to camp with Dorado, known in Hawaii as Mahi Mahi. We were on the water at dawn and back in camp by early afternoon as temperatures rose and the wind picked up. Next came important boat maintenance and refueling in a relentless sun. Afterwards we butchered and cleaned our fish. Then a salt water shower, a cold beer and siesta time. Sometime after siesta the abalone lady came walking up the beach. For a few pesos she produced a plate of fresh abalone fritters and promised same-day shrimp for the next day. The abalone, several cold cervesas, good company and a fiery sunset inspired the budding chef in my soul.
I prepared Dorado four different ways during our stay. On the first night I grilled it over mesquite coals. Next I cooked the fish in foil with onions, lime slices and garlic. On another night we ate Dorado fish and chips. Finally, I faced the bewildering tomatillos. I dusted my filets in flour seasoned with Cajun spice and sautéed them in peanut oil while a pan ragu of sorts, made from quartered tomatillos, onions, garlic and tomatoes sizzled on the other side of a huge cast iron skillet. I sprinkled it with a dash of lime and tequila and flavored it with more of my Cajun spice mix. The pungent aromas drifted across camp as an evening calm settled in. I plated my fish on top of the caramelized vegetables and served it with saffron rice and chilled watermelon balls. I knew I had a winner and the smiles on my crew’s faces validated my success. I’m still doing that dish. Sometimes I use thin sliced flank steak, pork chops or shrimp.
Tomatillos that were scarce in US markets twenty five years ago are now found year- round, as is the cilantro that I garnished my dishes with. Next time you are grilling outside, cut tomatillos and limes in half. Put the cut side down on a skillet surface or a hot cast iron plancha. The heat will sear and caramelize, turning the acidic fruits into sweet delights. Roasted tomatillo salsa raises the taste profile of a fish taco or grilled pork chop to another level.