The Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) consists of approximately 85 genera and about 2000 species of upright or climbing herbs, bushes, or small trees that are distributed worldwide.
One familiar non-food member is the tobacco plant.
What sets all these plants apart is their alkaloid content.
Warning: Alkaloids are harmful nitrogen compounds. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers contain relatively large amounts of these neurotoxins. Until recently, only potatoes had been thoroughly researched since they are the staple food in many countries. Depending on the type and origin, the green parts of potatoes contain considerable quantities of the alkaloid solanine. Potato tubers contain only harmless quantities; but that content increases when potatoes are not stored properly, causing the “green” to appear. Light turns potatoes green; and, when they are stored in light, the percentage of the toxin increases a hundredfold. These quantities cause nausea, diarrhea with vomiting, and headaches. In the worst cases, unconsciousness and convulsions to the point of respiratory paralysis. Potatoes should always be stored in the dark, and any green spots should be removed before cooking or eating. Very green potatoes should be thrown away since cooking does not destroy the toxin. Small quantities of solanine pass into the cooking water even from blemish-free potatoes; therefore, it is best to discard the cooking water rather than trying to reuse it. The alkaloid tomatine is found in tomatoes, and is similar to the solanine in potatoes. Again, it occurs mainly in the green parts of the fruit. Unripened green tomatoes are not suitable for eating even in chutney or pickles. This also holds true for unripe eggplant. These vegetables should never be cooked in aluminum cookware as they will leech out the aluminum.
lulun (Mexico), naranjilla de Quito (Ecuador), toronjo (Colombia)
(Solanum quitoense – Family Solanaceae)
The naranjilla is another edible member of the nightshade family. Its name is indicative of its resemblance to a small orange. The shrub is believed to be indigenous to Ecuador, Peru, and Columbia, where it is now grown commercially mainly for its juice; but it can be eaten raw. It has a brown, hairy coat that is easily rubbed off. The fruit can grow to more than two inches across and split into four sections, each divided by membranes. The pulp is yellowish-green and has an acidly sweet taste that is much like a pineapple with lemon. It does have many tiny flat seeds. There are several wild relatives of the naranjilla. One similar plant, S. sessiliflorum, the cocona (tupiro or Orinoco apple) resembles the naranjilla somewhat in its habits, but the fruit is quite different having a creamy-colour flesh surrounding a jelly-like yellow pulp.
Chinese Lantern, strawberry tomato, bladder cherry, winter cherry, ground cherry
(Physalis alkekengi – Family Solanaceae)
The Chinese Lantern is a plant commonly grown for decorative purposes, but it also has edible berries. The calyx, looking like a red Chinese paper lantern, is slightly toxic; but the red berry underneath is perfectly edible. The flavour is slightly acidic, but pleasant, if the fruit is fully ripe. It can be eaten fresh, but it is usually cooked to make sauces and preserves.
(Solanum intrusum – Family Solanaceae)
This huckleberry is not a true one, but another nightshade plant that produces smooth blue-black berries that grow in bunches and can be used in the same way as blueberries, but the flavour is somewhat lacking.
Tomatillo, jamberry, Mexican husk tomato
tomate verde, Mexicano, de fresadilla, de cáscara, de culebra, miltomate, Mayan husk tomato, Rendidora
(Physalis ixocarpa or P. philadelphica – Family Solanaceae)
Tomatillo (pronounced toe-ma-TEA-o) is another plant with many names, most of which reflect its resemblance with a green tomato. Tomatillo means little tomato, and is applicable since it is only about the size of an egg at its largest.
In the 1940s, an American fruit grower publicized this species as the “jamberry”, a new fruit introduced by scientists at Iowa State College to help promote sales. It has subsequently been introduced a few more times under other names, only adding to the confusion.
It has a connection with other popular fruits that have an enclosing calyx: the orange Chinese lantern plant, the American ground cherry, and the Cape gooseberry. Physalis is the Greek genus name.
Its species name, ixocarpa, means sticky fruit, which is what it is after the papery layer is removed. Its confusion with the green tomato is understandable since it looks very similar and comes from the same family. However, it is an entirely different fruit.
As the fruit develops, the calyx enlarges and becomes straw-coloured and papery. This husk is so tight-fitting that it often bursts.
The fruit itself is thin-skinned; and, when ripe, may vary in colour from green to yellow or purple. The flesh is a pale yellow, crisp or soft, acid or sweet, or simply inedible. All contain many tiny seeds.
Other names include green tomato, since it remains so even after ripening, husk tomato, and sometimes Spanish tomato although it is not known in Spain.
It grows in Mexico and is otherwise known as the Mexican husk tomato, a fruit that was a prominent staple in the Aztec and Mayan economies, but is still popular in Mexican cooking where the “green” sauces are an accompaniment.
The tomatillo also fruits well in Queensland, Australia, and in South Africa. It was introduced into India in the 1950s, and is now used to make a sweet chutney.
Tomatilloes have made it around the world in popularity but have not caught on in North America, despite its love for Tex-Mex foods. It is usually used when it is a green colour, but it can ripen to a yellow with the occasional purple tinge.
One yellow fruit variety is called Golden Nugget Cape Gooseberry.
The flavour is quite acidic when raw; but intensifies and mellows after cooking, which is why it is so popular for “salsa verde” dishes. This flavour is lacking once the green ripens to other colours.
They keep remarkably well but should not be kept at room temperature. The husks should be removed and the fruit stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where they can be kept for up to a month.
They also freeze well whole. The sticky substance released during the dehusking is harmless and can easily be washed off.
Tomatillos are are a good source of Vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and niacin.