Ay Caramba! It’s time for tomatillos!

These "little tomatoes" were first cultivated by the Aztecs and continue to be a major staple in Mexican cuisine. Tomatillos are the fruit of the annual plant Physalis philadelphica , and the small green berries are surrounded by a paper-like cellulose husk. The plant is very closely related to gooseberries, ground cherries and tomatoes; but tomatillos have a distinct citrusy flavour which makes excellent salsa verde!

Tomatillos are a member of the solanaceae plant family; which has an interesting dichotomy to say the least. Firstly, we have the poisonous, non-edible plants including tobacco, belladonna and mandrake. On the other side of the family we have highly edible and commercialized foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers (both sweet and hot chilis), eggplant; and some lesser known veggies like the tomatillo and other "ground cherries".  All the members of this solanaceae family (edible or not), contain variable amounts of compounds called alkaloids, higher concentrations of which contribute to the poisonous nature of the plants. These alkaloids have a powerful effect in the body – they block parasympathetic nervous system activity which basically governs our digestion, skeletal muscle contraction and respiration.  Too much of these compounds is definitely dangerous, however, these plant-based alkaloids have led to the development of some pretty important pharmaceuticals that are used to treat chronic diseases such as asthma and COPD.

Good news for all you tomatillo lovers (and if you also enjoy other solanaceae goodies)!! The edible plants are not poisonous, and in truth they contain a very tiny fraction of the alkaloids other plants do.  One exception here – unripe, green potatoes – full of alkaloids so don’t eat those!

Solanaceae foods are really quite good for most people; rich in nutrients and antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin A, lycopene and lutein. Interesting nutritional differential between tomatoes and tomatillos; the latter does not contain lycopene but is a much better source of minerals like calcium and potassium.

Now some of you may be asking why I mentioned that solanaceae veggies are good for " most " people….and you may be familiar with hypoallergenic diets that require the elimination of these foods among others.  As a Naturopathic Doctor, I have found that a reduction or trial elimination of "nightshade" foods seems to have benefit for those with inflammatory arthritis, autoimmune disease, and certain gastrointestinal conditions like IBS & IBD.  Although there is little to no research to back this claim up, I think some folks are just plain sensitive to the plant family; the same as others might be to gluten and dairy (NB. it has nothing to do with it being a "poisonous" group of plants).

Enjoy the tomatillos this week, and I will leave you with the ingredients for a delicious home-made Salsa Verde :

  • Combine chopped tomatillos, onions, garlic, jalepeno, cilantro, fresh lime juice, salt & pepper. Enjoy with your favorite meat or fish, or serve with tortilla chips.

Bronwyn Hill, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor & food lover. She is currently in practice in Toronto's Forest Hill Neighbourhood, at Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health. She specializes in using food as medicine, acupuncture & traditional chinese medicine & botanicals; and has particular experience treating digestive concerns, women's health concerns including menopause, stress management, insomnia, healthy detoxification, and chronic respiratory conditions including asthma. She can be reached at bhillnd@gmail.com . Follow her on Twitter @drbronwynnd.