I had a bit of a tidy-up in the greenhouse this month. Goodness knows it needed it: weeds everywhere, the cucumbers in a spaghetti junction of a tangle and the tomatilloes (of which more in a minute) lurching drunkenly across the aubergines.
The tomatoes have been recovering from their bad start in Greenhouse no. 2: ‘Ferline’ is looking particularly splendid and I do like the big, fat toms you get (not exceptional flavour, but cropping well despite the blight which is always a plus). This is one I’ll be growing again.
I also tried a couple of American heirloom varieties this year as they were feted for their supposed blight resistance. Well; you can keep your ‘Tommy Toe’: it never once got past the weedy stage, even as a seedling, and didn’t even make it to the kind of size where blight becomes an issue. I don’t think it likes it here in the UK. ‘Old Brooks’ was more promising, but fell foul of the terminal delay in getting the plants in the ground this year: I’ll try them again next season I think.
If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow tomatilloes, and mine this year have been spectacularly successful. The last time I tried I wrote them off as really not worth the bother: tiny yields plus huge plants equals bad use of greenhouse space.
But I’m always willing to be proved wrong, and this year my tomatilloes have been huge, sprawling behemoths laden with fruit so fat they are splitting open their Chinese lantern carapaces.
I have no particular explanation for the sudden change in fortunes: the soil here in Somerset does tend to be damper than most, and we have had an exceptionally good summer this year. But whatever the reason, it’s completely changed my mind about these Mexican beauties.
The green variety – like the ones I’m growing this year – are said to have the best flavour for salsa (my main reason for growing them), though the purple ones are undeniably prettier. They’re tart, a little acid, and complement tomatoes and coriander to perfection. You can also slice them thinly to add a citrussy high note for salads, and add them to guacamole and gazpacho. Basically, if they’re likely to cook it in Mexico or anywhere in South America, it’s likely to have tomatilloes in it. I’m told you can make jam with the sweeter purple varieties – a tempting prospect, so I might just have to have one of each next year.
This late in the season it becomes more and more difficult to keep plants in the greenhouse happy. They’re hugely leafy, and at their greediest just when the soil is exhausted from all that hell-for-leather growth at the early part of the season.
Pests have had all season to build up their numbers and often attack with a vengeance in September: I’ve been battling the red spider mites all summer and have only just managed to beat them back by the slightly drastic method of picking off all the affected leaves. It’s worked though: the cucumbers just sprouted more, healthier foliage and are back to producing prolific fruits again.
The tomatilloes in particular are clearly finding end-of-summer life rather difficult. I’ve had to truss them up to keep them off the aubergines next door, and they’ve developed a worrying nutrient deficiency. Judging from the yellowing leaves with brilliant green veins (you can just about see one in the background in the picture on the left) I’d say it’s magnesium deficiency (if you ever need to diagnose a suspected nutrient deficiency, here’s a handy at-a-glance guide).
The usual solution is a dose of Epsom salts, and since we have a good five weeks or so of good growing weather left (I hope!) that’s what I’ve given them. Whether it’ll kick in before the plants run out of puff is anyone’s guess. But in any case, I already have a big pot of the fattest tomatilloes I’ve ever grown, and it’s making me come over all Mexican. You ain’t tried salsa till you’ve tried it made with home-made tomatilloes. Here’s how:
Authentic Mexican salsa
You will need:
a small onion
a good fistful of fresh coriander
a fresh chilli
1tsp brown sugar
This is one of those serendipitous recipes where all the ingredients are ready fresh from the garden all at once, so start by popping outside to cut a fistful of fresh coriander, pluck a ripe chilli from the plant, pull an onion off the string you dried earlier and of course fill a bowl with ripe tomatilloes.
Some cook the tomatilloes before using – cover with water and boil for five minutes – to take the edge off the piquant sourness of the tomatilloes, but I prefer mine raw.
Cut the tomatilloes and onion into quarters and finely chop the coriander and chilli. Bung the lot into a food processor and whizz it till it’s turned into salsa. Taste it and if it’s a little tart for you, add the sugar and whizz again. Spoon out into a glass bowl and serve with tortillas, hot chilli, fresh salad, sour cream and guacamole… mmmmm….