Gems from the Market

Concombre Péruvien

Last Saturday I went to the Marché des Batignolles, an all-organic market that’s just a short bus ride from where I live. I don’t go nearly as often as I’d wish: many different activities compete for my attention on Saturday mornings, and the whole sleep-in-and-laze-around-in-your-pj’s seems to win the game more often than not, especially when Friday nights are poker nights.

However, this time I had a companion, Meg, who lives not too far from me: she had never been to that market so we had agreed to meet for a little team-shopping. And just like having a workout buddy will ensure you don’t skip your exercising sessions, this was an excellent motivation to actually get up, get dressed and walk out into the bright but chilly morning, my little shopping bag in tow.

We bought plenty of fruits and vegetables from my usual produce stall — I got carrots, spring onions, green beans, shelling beans, wild roquette, apples, and delicious reine-claudes (green plums) the size of mirabelles (marble-sized yellow plums) — but we also made a stop at a much smaller stand that sold intriguing and unusual produce.

When we got there a middle-aged man was poring over the selection and I overheard him say, “Vous avez vraiment plein de trucs bizarres qu’on voit jamais.” (You really have weird things that nobody else sells.) The way he said it, nonplussed and slightly dubious, did not make it sound like a compliment — he walked away without purchasing anything. The lady seemed pleased to discover such excited expressions on her next customers’ faces.

Most of the display was occupied by a wide and colorful array of winter squash, in varieties that are very difficult to find in Paris: butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and lots of others to whom I’ve yet to be introduced, including really small ones that would make remarkably pretty decorations for a mantelpiece if I had one on hand. But to be truthful I am not the world’s biggest fan of winter squash, and my eye was drawn to other things.

First, a basket of small yellow and green tomatoes wrapped in their fragile leaf-cloaks. Tomatillos?, I asked. Yes, tomatillos!, the lady replied — we did actually form complete sentences a bit later in the conversation. I had never seen a tomatillo in the flesh before, only in picture books (okay, magazines and websites), but I knew it to be a capital ingredient in Mexican cuisine and I just had to buy a handful. Now of course they’re all huddled together in the refrigerator and I’m not sure what to do with them. A salsa maybe?

Then, I spotted a super spiky little green thing that looked like a cross between a hand grenade and a medieval flail. This, I was told, was a Peruvian cucumber whose exact name eludes me now (I believe it had an “n” and a “w” and three syllables — I’m sure that helps). It’s not every day that one can purchase a vegetable that also functions as a weapon, so I couldn’t pass it up. We ate it for lunch that same day and loved it: you have to cut it in halves and eat it with a spoon like a melon, taking care not to prick your fingers (unless pricking your fingers is, in fact, your thing). The flesh is juicy with large edible seeds, and it tastes like (you guessed) cucumber, but with a lovely lime juice taste. Fun and refreshing.

Finally, I was delighted when the lady mentioned that she had fresh piment d’Espelette stashed in the back. This emblematic chili pepper from the Pays Basque is protected by an AOC (a certification of origin) since 1999 and proves pretty difficult to find outside its natural habitat, probably because it’s produced on such a limited scale. It’s easy enough to find in powder, flake or jelly form (got them all), but whole — fresh or dried, I’m not picky — is another story. So I bought one, and it is now biding its time with the tomatillos. I will use it in some kind of stew or possibly with the tomatillos, or maybe I will hang it somewhere in the kitchen and let it dry and be pretty — we shall see!

  • Joanna

    My mom used to grow tomatillos in our backyard and I would eat them warm right off the vine – they have such an exciting, sour-sweet taste all by themselves! Mom would use them in a tomatillo-cilantro salsa to top off her chicken enchiladas – a favorite meal in our house.

  • Warning: tomatillo salsa is insanely delicious and addictive! Derrick posted a recipe on SFist:

    “More often, chefs cook and purée the vegetables to combat the tough texture. We took this approach, roasting the tomatillos in their husks for about 15 minutes at 450°, peeling them, and running them through a food processor to form the base of a chunky salsa verde that also included grapes, cilantro, mint, garlic, and lime juice.”

  • abby

    Tomatillos are excellent in a simple spinach salad with balsamic vinagrette and feta cheese.

  • Ivanna

    Got a bunch of these in my veg share and adapted this epicurious recipe – you boil them (without husks:) for about 4 minutes, cool, then puree them with some chicken broth and either fresh coriander (or coriander chutney) and some jalapeno for sauce that is great on fish. They are very addictive!

  • genevieve

    we have been making this salsa all summer with the tomatillos from our farmers market: garlic, cilantro and tomatillos chopped in the mini food processor, add some sliced grape or cherry tomatoes & avocado, salt, olive oil, lime juice and hot pepper to taste – yum, yum yum! also, i’m not sure, but i don’t think the tomatillos need to be refrigerated, at least we never do.

  • Deste

    Mignon! Next project: a children’s picture book featuring your bumpy tailed friend.

  • Awurrlu

    That would be a kiwano or horned melon! I’ve usually seen them in a vibrant yellow and orange. Lovely and refreshing!

  • What a beautiful fruit!

  • Meg sent me an excited e-mail after your trip together. She couldn’t get over the fact she found acorn squash in Paris.

    It made me feel a little ungrateful for the tons of squash showing up in the markets here these days.

  • lee

    I prefer roasted tomatillos over boiled or uncooked for salsa. Roast in a single layer with a little oil and salt on high heat until they start to brown and produce a lot of juice. While you’re at it, throw a head of garlic in too. Puree the tomatillos, the whole head of roasted garlic (peeled of course) and a bunch of cilantro. Add a jalapeno if you like it hot. I don’t recommend roasting them in the husk. While this might prevent sticky fingers, they are often dirty under their wrappers and need a bath before cooking.

  • lee

    Oh, and yours look yellow, i.e. ripe so you might want to add a squeeze of lime since they will be a little sweeter than greener tomatillos.

  • Rainey Smith

    Yes! I was going to suggest roasting them too. Yum-mee!

  • Hilary

    May I echo the comments regarding the addictive properties of tomatillos! We just bought the last of the crop from our favorite organic growers and are looking forward to a final batch of salsa (note: I also agree that grilling them – we do them in a grill basket on the BBQ – is the way to go).

    I’m told there are other uses for tomatillos, but the salsa is always such a hit (serve it at a party and you’ll have people gobbling it up!) with tortilla chips that I can’t see reason for doing anything else. I’m going to miss them… think I’ll get started on that salsa shortly!

  • Kate

    I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I composted the tomatillos someone gave me last year because I couldn’t think of anything to do with them except salsa, which I’m not a huge fan of. This year, those tenacious tomatillos took over a sizeable portion of my small city garden–all emanating from the compost bin! So this year, I’m determined to find another use for them. They’re not ready yet, but when they are, the first recipe on my list is butternut-tomatilla soup!

  • Jasmine

    I agree with the roasting suggestions for tomatillos — I got addicted to roasted tomatillo salsa this summer, and it couldn’t be easier: husk and wash the tomatillos, put on a baking sheet with seeded jalepenos, cloves of garlic, and quarters of onion. Put under the broiler for about 10 minutes, turning once, and then throw all in a food processor with some cilantro, salt, and squeezes of lime. Process to desired chunkiness. Great for topping fish or chicken, and just for eating alone. Additions of avocado and mango are also delightful.

  • I’ve never tried a fresh piment d’Esplette, just the dried powder. I hope you’ll share your tasting notes with us! I’m very curious.

  • Miranda

    A kiwano–how lovely! I like to buy them when they are yellow-orange, slice in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and mix them with chopped cold poached chicken and whatever herbs or salad-friendly vegetables are on hand–then heap the salad back into the kiwano shell for serving. Delightful!

  • Wendy

    If I may make a suggestion: Diana Kennedy’s wonderful cookbooks can provide a plethora of ideas for using tomatillos. I make pork in a green peanut sauce, from one of her books, that is to die for!

  • Oh! when shopping adventures are lessons themselves. I love it! May I suggest a lamb-tomatillo-chilli pepper slow cook? That would be divine alongside some fluffy cous cous.

  • Miss Lisa

    Are butternut squash the same as the ones we know as butternut pumpkin in Australia? They’re kind of long, thin at the top with a bulbous bottom … if so, they make a BEAUTIFUl pumpkin soup … and are gorgeous roasted too…

  • Andi*

    OMG!!!!…… you will love these firm sticky…We throw them in everything from omlets,to dips and they are wonderful with pork butt…..I learned about these green like tomatoes,Tomatillos,from eating at Mesa Grill in New York..Bobby Flays restaurant……He uses them all the timein his restaurants….
    Andi*in Vegas

  • T.Elizabeth

    I am on my way for my first trip to Paris on the 27 of October. I have always wanted to see Paris and picked a hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. So excited! I am not sure how to get around but thinking I will figure it out. I have been reading this website preparing to eat my way around Paris. Anyone have any ideas or help on getting around I would appreciate it!

  • Meg

    Clotilde, how did I miss the tomatillos? I must have been so excited at choosing my acorn squash that I zoned out. ARGGGHH! One of my goals in August was to get Barrett to introduce me to them and now I’ve missed a second chance. Guess we’ll have to go back to the market!

  • Marley

    The weird knobbly thingy is a kiwano- I bought one once out of curiosity, thinking it was a fruit, but it tasted like a very bitter cucumber. I couldn’t work out what to do with it- should I have let it ripen more, or did it need to be paired with certain things… ? I’d be interested to see what you make of it, Clotilde, or to read other people’s suggestions!

  • I’ve used tomatillos in a variety of ways, but my favorite is the Pipian Verde sauce. Toasted pumpkin seeds ground into the sauce give it a richness that has never disappointed anyone that I’ve served it too. As the leaves turn in Missoula Montana I’m making plans with friends for our annual Day of the Dead feast. I’ll put to use a portion of the 1 pound bag of chipotles chiles (smoked jalapenos) I acquired this summer. The chocolate cake with pasilla chiles and kahlua whipped cream was such a hit last year that a encore is mandatory. I found an example of the Pipian Verde sauce here:

  • I was going to suggest a stunning recipe that I found on Michael Michaud’s hot-pepper farm site, but unfortunately the site appears to have gone AWOL. It was a recipe for chicken stewed with eggplant and tomatillos–a really unusual combination, and well worth trying.

    Ah, well, here’s the synopsis: You grill a couple of small eggplants and scoop out the flesh. Meanwhile you brown a couple pounds of chicken pieces (leg quarters are good) in olive oil, then remove to a plate and sizzle a chopped onion and a little minced Serrano chile in the pan.

    While that’s happening, boil a few handfuls of tomatillos until tender and whirr them in a food processor with the eggplant pulp. Combine this sauce with the onion, chiles, chicken, a little minced garlic, and a healthy splash of Asian fish sauce in a pot. Simmer 40 minutes and stir in some cilantro.

    It sounds weird, but trust me on this. :-)

  • Vallen Queen

    Tomatillos, quartered, with chicharron (crisp pork rind), cilantro and a fresh white crumbly cheese make a swell salad. Dress with lime juice and salt and pepper. Serve on top of lettuce maybe.

  • Hey, Clotilde! You might wish to try adding a coarsely chopped tomatillo to your next simmered dish (stew, ragout, soup). They work a treat to to smooth and thicken the texture of such dishes, without the floury taste one gets with starch or the like.

    Tomatillos have quite a bit of glycerin and pectin, both of which sublime out nicely while slow-cooking.

    Their lovely flavor doesn’t come through as strongly in this application but it’s still a nice addition.

    ..and I’ll second everyone on the roasted salsa idea! Luscious.

    -GC @ f // f

  • Monica

    Thank you for the new perspective. Usually when I read your blog, I wish I had access to such beautiful cheeses, breads and pastries. Now I feel lucky to live in the land of tomatillos and acorn squash!

    If you’d like to make a decorative string (ristra) of chiles, here are instructions:

  • Hi Clotilde,

    I just realised I posted my tomatillos ideas under the wrong posting (leeks!), oh well. By the way, I also LOVE Piment d’Espelette and have been using it in everything recently. One of my favourite recipes, Poulet Basquaise, is by my boss, Anne Willan from her recent book, The Good Cook, miam-miam!

  • I love the Batignolles market. It is the market I go to if I’m not in Paris on Sunday. I also love it because it is not a touristy market.

    We just picked a sunday new york times bag full of purple tomatillos and I am going to make salsa to can for the year.

    However, it makes great enchilada sauce.

    I spent a fall in Rome and I was homesick for acorn squash and cranberries around thanksgiving. Zucca just didn’t cut it.


  • Julia

    tomatillos are a marvelous fruit. They resemble a green tomatoe but are quite tangy and versatile. We use them in several different ways in our house.
    Two easy recipes that I can highly recommend are:
    peel the papery skin off and rinse about 6-8 tomatillos. Pop them in a roasting pan with 2-4 cloves of garlic and 2-3 serrano peppers. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast at a med.high heat for about 20 minutes or until slightly charred. Remove from oven and let cool. While cooling, finely chop 1 medium white onion and a handfull of cilantro. Throw the roasted ingredients in a blender and whiz until quite smooth. It may be necessary to add some water to the mixture, but do it carefully and a little at a time as you do not want it too thin.
    Remove from blender and add the cilantro and onion as well as salt and pepper to taste. I like to add a small squeeze of fresh lime juice as well. Enjoy with tortilla chips or you can use it as a base for chicken, pork or fish. We sometimes saute one of these in a little olive oil then add the sauce and simmer until cooked through. With a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche it is amazing!
    REcipe 2:
    Avocado/Tomatillo salsa:
    This sounds strange but ROCKS.
    Peel and wash the tomatillos. Quarter them. Add them to a blender with a little water and a pepper or 2 (again we like serrano if you can find it but it depends on your heat preference). Take an avacado or 2 and add it to the blender with the juice of one lime. Whiz until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. THis is amazing on anything. I swear I could eat this as a soup with a drop of creme fraiche. I particularly like it with prawns or crab. We have experimented adding the onion/cilantro combo which is nice as well. However, I think that this simple sauce highlights two amazing fruits in a very unusual way.

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