Usually I only write about ingredients which are readily available from The Community Food Co-op, Terra Organica, or the Farmers Market. This week is an exception. It all started with a food puzzle.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about tomatillos, and mentioned they are sometimes called “ground cherries.” The tomatillos I cooked with were green, and the size of medium tomatoes.
A few days later, I received an email from Lynn Fast, of Red Barn Lavender:
“I saw your article about tomatillas and just had to contact you with my odd story. I ordered tomatilla seed from Territorial Seed Company, expecting to get the crop you describe in your article – green, tomato-like, covered in a husk and used in Mexican salsas, etc. Well, the plants came up with abundant little husked fruits, but they had a sweet, almost nutty flavor, and were quite little – about 3/4″ in diameter. I showed some to my mom. She said they looked like the ground cherries her mom grew back in the ’40s. I told her I thought they were the same but I did a bit of research and discovered that ground cherries and tomatillas really are different plants. Both bear fruits that are covered with a papery husk and I’m guessing the plants are quite similar (hence the confusion by Territorial Seed Co.) The ground cherry makes nice jams, pies and other sweet fruit recipes, rather than savory salsas.”
Lynn brought some to the Farmers Market the next Saturday for me to try. She suggested discarding any that were still green under their outer husks, as they wouldn’t be ripe. Ripe ones were yellow to peach colored, and could be eaten raw or cooked (husks removed, of course). She also said they would keep for months without any kind of preservation.
Marvin, Lynn’s husband, described how the ground cherries grew in their garden. As they begin to ripen, he said, the plant collapses around the bottom and the ground cherries fall off (hence the name “ground” cherries). They will reseed themselves if you don’t pick them up. Harvesting is a matter of crawling around lifting up the plants to look underneath for the fruit. More continue to ripen for 2-3 weeks. “These will never be a commercial product,” he said. “They’re too much work to harvest!”
When I got home, I gave my daughter one to taste. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “It tastes like a combination of sweet grapes and acidic tomatoes.” During the next few days I asked other friends to taste. People described the flavor as a combination of at least two flavors, and everyone liked them. Finally I tasted them myself. What a burst of flavor! To me, the flavor was like both fruit and vegetable.
According to my research, tomatillos and ground cherries are both in the Nightshade family, though the difference between them is not clear. Sources were contradictory. Ground cherries are apparently always small, while tomatillos can be as large as tomatoes. Ground cherries are usually described as sweet tasting, and are often made into pies and jams.
I knew what I’d cooked with a couple of weeks ago were definitely tomatillos. They were large like tomatoes and had a tomato-like flavor. They tasted good even though they were green. I also thought I could definitely say the fruits Lynn had given me were true ground cherries. They were about the size of actual cherries, were harvested when they fell to the ground, and friends had described their flavor as sweet and fruit-like.
Pleased at having sorted it out, at least to my own satisfaction, I gave one more friend a ground cherry to taste. “They taste kind of like tomatoes, or tomatillos,” she said. Ah well.
Here’s this week’s menu, a breakfast featuring a ground cherry recipe: