Antonio Ruiz's arrival at Joshua Farms four years ago ushered in a new tradition, one firmly rooted in his cultural heritage.

Antonio Ruiz's arrival at Joshua Farms four years ago ushered in a new tradition, one firmly rooted in his cultural heritage.

Tomatillos accompanied Ruiz as he assumed management of the Sams Valley Farm, where they complement crops of strawberries, chilies, corn, tomatoes and melons. Its name meaning "little tomato" in Spanish, the tomatillo is a sprawling, bushy plant native to Central and South America. Records show this tomato relative was cultivated by the Aztecs as far back as 800 B.C.

"As Latinos, we use those every day," Ruiz says. "Some people, they don't know what they are, but they're good food."

Also known as husk tomatoes, tomatillos are intrinsic ingredients in Mexican fare, where they impart a bright color, silky texture and mildly tart flavor. Tomatillos lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods such as roasting, sauteing and stewing, which softens the small fruit's acidity and brings out its sweetness. And like tomatoes, tomatillos can be eaten raw.

"It's not a big flavor," says 51-year-old Leslie Parsons of Ashland. "To me, it needs to be embellished."

So Parsons combines tomatillos, chilies and garlic and freezes the mixture in ice-cube trays to make "spice-cubes," a seasoning ready to be pulled from the freezer to embellish any meal.

Used in Latin dishes from enchiladas and tacos to "green hominy," tomatillos most often are blended into sauces and salsas, especially those that lighten rich chicken and pork dishes. Ruiz says he likes them simply grilled — over direct heat — as a side dish or appetizer. Cut tomatillos into wedges, lightly oil and season them and grill so they're crisp-tender, a couple of minutes per side.

Selling a purple-husked variety of tomatillo for $2 per pint basket at local farmers markets, Ruiz says he has handed out recipes to acquaint Caucasian customers with the fruits' possibilities.

"Every year I got more customers," he says.

He tells market-goers to peel tomatillos and store them in gallon bags in the freezer; no blanching, slicing or other preparations are necessary. Then take out what you need for a meal or batch of salsa. With husks on, tomatillos keep for about two weeks stored in a paper bag and refrigerated.

Available year-round in grocery stores, tomatillos are in peak season May through October. Mature tomatillos may range in color from yellow to red, even purple. But they're best picked just before ripening, when the flesh is still firm and the flavors are bright with a gentle but assertive acidity. Ruiz says he likes to harvest them when the husks have split open, revealing slightly sticky flesh with a scent faintly reminiscent of freshly picked herbs.

Ruiz will sell tomatillos, grown without pesticides, until frost claims the last of the crop or until the Nov. 20 close of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, whichever comes first. Try them in the following recipes.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.