Salsa Verde: Tomatillo Green Sauce

There are some things that we’ve been a bit slow to adopt in Canada, such as Newfoundland, summer and fresh tomatillo. For years, tomatillo were a thing of legend for those of us who live in the ‘burbs.  When bland or tinny canned tomatillo first appeared in the grocery store a few years back, at least one of us danced a little jig and bought six. Fresh tomatillo, however, rarely if ever make it up here.  At times, you can find fresh tomatillo at a fruit stand or Mexican grocer in Kensington market, or a stall at St. Lawrence if you’re really lucky, but tomatillo in a supermarket outside of the city is about as common as a dog who drives. Not that it couldn’t happen, but it isn’t very likely.

As a result, whenever I happen to gaze upon these illustrious green gems, I buy them all. Seriously. I clean out the stock, sweeping fruit into bags quickly with my elbows out to prevent anyone from getting between us.  People from warmer and more temperate climates, the ones where tomatillo are as common as apples, may not understand what I’m making such a fuss about. For me, however, they are like forbidden fruit and I will greedily steal them all to make tomatillo and green chili relish, chicken and tomatillo stew, and as much salsa verde as I can manage.

I once heard that “Salsa verde is to Mexico what tomato sauce is to Italy”, and that sounds about right to me.  With a good salsa verde on hand, you have the makings of luscious enchiladas, gussied up scrambled eggs, punched up braised chicken, and a quick party dip with just the twist of a lid.  I have made salsa verde with late autumn green tomatoes, but there is nothing like the mild sweet-tart flavor of fresh tomatillo to get your taste buds wet.

A short while back, I happened to come across a grocer who had a small crate of tomatillo sitting on the ground at the back of his store.  Clearly it was destiny, and so my canning continues.

Salsa Verde

Makes appx 5 pint jars (500 mL each)

  • 4.5 lb (2 kg) fresh tomatillos *
  • 2 large sweet onions
  • 1/2 large bulb garlic (~9 cloves)
  • 9 – 12 serrano chilis
  • 1.5 tsp cumin seed, optional but recommended
  • large handful fresh cilantro (~1 cup, loosely packed)
  • 1 lemon **
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • salt, to taste

* Do not use canned tomatillo for this recipe.

** Lime is more traditional for salsa verde, but I actually prefer lemon. The salsa will still get sweetness from the cider vinegar.

Preheat your oven to 450ºF with the racks set near the bottom.  Spray 2 large cooking sheets with nonstick spray, or lightly grease with oil.

Peel the husk from the tomatillo and wash them well with cold water.Peel the onions and chop in half. Slice each half into 4 wedges. Arrange the tomatillo and onion in a single layer on your prepared baking sheets, with the tomatillo facing cut side up.  Roast in the oven for 7 minutes until the onion is softened and fragrant. Do not flip the onions or tomatillo, because you want them to start to char on the bottom for that rustic smoky intensity.

Slice only the stem end off the chili peppers.  Separate the garlic cloves but do not peel them. Intersperse the chilis and garlic cloves throughout the onion and tomatillo mixture.  Continue to roast for an additional 7-10 minutes until the peppers are blistered and charred on the bottom.

When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, add the tomatillo and onion (minus the stem end) to a blender.  Peel the garlic but leave the chilis whole, seeds and all.  Add the cumin seed, citrus juice and cider vinegar.  Wash the cilantro well and add it to the blender, stems and all.  Puree the mixture in batches.

As each batch comes out, pour it into a large pot/bowl to marry the flavors, just in case one batch got more chili, another less cilantro.  Stir everything together and season generously with salt.

The salsa verde will keep for about 2 weeks in your fridge, or frozen for up to a year.  However, as I have sublimated my nicotine cravings with canning, that’s the method I used to preserve my bounty.

Ladle the hot mixture into clean, sterilized pint jars.  Cover with fresh lids and screw on ring molds.  Process the jars in boiling water for 15 minutes and then set aside (do not flip the jars upside down or fuss with them) for 24 hours as they cool and you listen to those glorious pops that indicate a vacuum seal.

Knowing that there were 5 jars of salsa verde in my pantry was simply more than I could resist, so within days the first jar was opened and served simply with salty tortilla chips.

There are as many recipes and techniques to make salsa verde as there are abuelas in Mexico City, but this one hits all the right notes for me. Toasted cumin and bright, pungent cilantro, sour citrus and a sweet finish, this is exactly what I want and what keeps me coming back for more.

When all of the technique you need is, “Cut, roast, blend”, and the hardest part is finding fresh tomatillo, if you don’t already have a few jars of salsa verde lingering in your pantry then you owe it to yourself to correct that.  You also owe yourself some enchiladas, homemade tacos, tomatillo soup and a midnight snack of salty chips and salsa verde when everyone else has gone to bed.

  • Hellcat13

    I got a small bag of tomatillos in my CSA 2 years ago, and I made salsa verde, and I may have eaten the entire jar then and there. SO GOOD. I have never seen them in my grocery store, but I think you can occasionally get them at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market if you’re lucky.

  • Webber

    I always make my salsa verde with cumin. A lot of people don’t, but I learned how to make salsa verde from my grandmother who was born in Veracruz. She was the best cook I know, and put her own stamp on every recipe. I would never think of making salsa verde without it!

  • Blaise

    Have you tried making salsa verde wtih your leftover green tomatoes? You need to adjust the acid content so it ends up a little bit sour and with less nuance, but really good way to use up the last harvest of fall.

  • jen

    Wow! This is so delicious! I was lucky to find tomatillos at my local farmer’s market so I halved this recipe. My husband is licking the bowl as we speak!

  • Tina

    Hellcat13 – Seriously, I know! Talk to someone from the US about how tomatillo is exotic and they’ll look at you like you have horns, but they’re like the purple unicorn of the produce aisle around here.

    Webber – thank you (and your grandmother) for validation!!! I’m sure that at some point we’ll get a comment about how only an uneducated heathen would add cumin to salsa verde, but you and I can just shake our little fists at them and keep eating delicious salsa verde exactly how we like it.

    Blaise – okay, we’re totally on the same page. We had almost a bushel of green tomatoes that were harvested last week, and we made a chunky green tomato and poblano salsa as well as a green tomato salsa verde. I like it (thank heavens, because we have an awful lot), but the flavor is surprisingly different from with tomatillo. I expected them to be really similar…I don’t know why, considering that the only similarity they have is size and color. The green tomato salsa verde ended up sweeter and less complex with a grainier texture, but I still like it enough to make it again next year! Thanks for the tip 🙂

    Jen – That’s awesome!!!! I’m so glad that you and your husband liked this recipe! Thank you so very much for letting us know. We really value feedback….good, bad or ugly. But…uh, yeah, the good stuff is my favorite 😉