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Tomatillos may sit among tomatoes in the grocery store, but their papery husks and small green fruit make them seem completely foreign even to the experienced home chef. If you are not familiar with tomatillos, it can be hard to figure out how to prepare them and use them. However, tomatillos can add a delicious dimension to your home cooking that is worth the extra effort.

Tomatillos, also known as a Mexican husk tomato, is part of the nightshade family, which means it is related to familiar produce like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. The outside of the green fruit is covered by a brown husk, which must be removed before eating.

“It’s not just a green tomato, it’s a different thing,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College. “A lot of people don’t know what they are and may not ever even pick one up. Tomatillos [are ingredients] that I really enjoy because it’s so acidic and that’s something that’s lacking in a lot of cooking. It adds a depth of flavor.”

Choosing good tomatillos can also be tricky if you are not familiar with the fruit. Look out for black spots of mold.

“They can be moldy if they’re old,” Enjaian said. “It needs to be pretty crisp and light colored, evenly colored.”

Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, said to give tomatillos a gentle squeeze.

“A good quality tomatillo is going to be nice and firm,” Dumas said. “If it’s wet or soft, it’s probably not going to be a terribly good tomatillo.”

Once you have your tomatillos, you need to husk them. Be prepared to get your hands a little sticky.

“That’s pretty easy to accomplish: pull the husk off,” Dumas said. “They are a little sticky in there, but [with] any produce in the grocery store, it’s probably a good idea to give it a rinse anyway.”

Enjaian and Dumas agreed that perhaps unlike their red tomato brethren, tomatillos are best cooked. Enjaian said that her favorite way to eat tomatillos is in soup, like in a Southwestern stew or to enhance the flavor of a classic gazpacho.

“You can eat it raw, but most people don’t like the flavor or texture,” Enjaian said. “I probably wouldn’t just slice it and eat it raw.”

Dumas recommended roasting them — on the grill, if you can, but in the oven will work nicely as well — prior to using them in any of your favorite recipes.

“Essentially the trick is to char them really nice, and right around the time they take some blackness on their edges, they’ll be meltingly soft,” Dumas said. “Prior to roasting, you can halve them or leave them whole. The one disadvantage to leaving them whole is that they kind of explode a little bit.”

Dumas said that tomatillos have a similar texture to underripe tomatoes, but they have a unique flavor, slightly sweeter than a green tomato but with a sour, tart kick. In general, though, he said you can substitute tomatillos for many of your favorite recipes for green tomatoes, like salsa, chow chow and relishes.

“You take those [roasted] tomatillos and you blend them up with onions, chiles, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and you end up with this really nice salsa verde,” Dumas said. “I have used it pretty effectively as a base for a green enchilada, [which is my] favorite way to use [tomatillos]. They have a unique flavor and texture.”

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