COLUMBIA — A yellowish brown paper-lantern husk hanging on a thin green vine might not seem exciting. But after peeling away the husk, the tomatillo has much potential.
The eighth annual Tomato Festival was held Thursday at the MU Bradford Research and Extension Center. This year, 144 tomato and 72 pepper varieties were harvested for participants to taste and rate at the free event.
Last year, tomatillos had top honors in tomato tasting at the festival. The feedback encouraged the research center to plant more tomatillo varieties this year, according to a news release.
The tomatillo, a cousin to the tomato, comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, said Tim Reinbott, superintendent at the research center.
Green tomatillos are bitter and traditionally used as part of salsa verde, or green salsa. The research center grows many varieties, including pineapple, cicineros and purple tomatillos. Pineapple tomatillos are small and have a sweet flavor similar to pineapple fruit. Cicineros varieties are crisp and crunchy like a green apple, while purple tomatillos are mild.
"The purple tomatillo almost tastes like cheese," said Todd Brase, an MU Campus Dining Services sous chef at Plaza 900.
"The widest variety of tomatillos I've seen so far is at this festival," Brase said. "It blows my mind."
Brase said Campus Dining Services uses tomatillos and tomatoes from the research center for salsa verde and other foods in campus dining halls.
Twelve restaurants, including Campus Dining Services, provided tomato and tomatillo dishes for participants to sample. Taqueria El Rodeo provided three hot salsas, including a salsa verde made with green tomatillos.
"Everything we made today came from here," said John Sims, another sous chef at Campus Dining Services.
Liz Graznak, owner of Happy Hollow Farm in Jamestown, uses green tomatillos for salsa verde, but doesn't grow them on her farm. She does grow 10 tomato varieties, including heirlooms, cherries and hybrids.
"I love tomatillos," Graznak said. "I love the flavor."
Gardeners and newcomers alike tasted and rated tomatoes and tomatillos under an outdoor tent. More than 400 people came to this year's event.
"I just have a casual interest," Tom Hutchinson, a regular attendee, said. Tomatoes "are like people. Lots of varieties."
Hutchinson has grown tomatoes for several years. A few years ago, he bought two or three tomatillo plants from Wilson's Garden Center and Gift Shop in Columbia. However, the produce wasn't worthwhile, Hutchinson said. Now, he sticks to tomatoes, although the drought made his crop smaller.
"I'm just a common man who has many tomatoes in his garden," Hutchinson said.
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