Ground cherries are having a moment


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Two weeks ago I thought I’d lost my dog, Lucy. I’d just finished working in my garden and was heading upstairs with a basket of vegetables. Lucy normally follows close at my heels, but she wasn’t there. I’d left the back gate open, and worried that she’d wandered away. I shouted and shouted, and finally she emerged, fruit-in-mouth, from under the 3-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide plant in the corner of the yard.

That moment I learned that Lucy loves ground cherries as much as I do (and that, thankfully, a garden snack is more enticing than an open gate). Lucky for both of us, a single ground-cherry plant can yield up to 300 fruits, so there are more than enough to share.

Lucy and I aren’t the only ones obsessed with the yellow-orange fruits that are also called husk cherries, Cape Gooseberries, uchuvas and, quite a few other names depending on where you find them. This summer, the marble-sized fruit is having a moment.

“Last year I think they started to get into people’s consciousness, and now they’re popping up in a lot of places,” said Nick Lubecki of Butter Hill Farm in Hampton.

“People are asking what they are,” he added, “and once they try them they usually buy a pint.”

One of those first timers was Azizan Aziz, who purchased a pint from Mr. Lubecki at the Saturday Bloomfield Farmers Market. “We tasted it and it was delicious. I’m sharing them with my friends now,” he said.

His 7-year-old daughter, Maya, however, was excited but less convinced. “For me it was like, one is enough. Their flavor was great, but they’re a little bit knockout!”

Physalis peruviana is indigenous to the mountainous regions of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. Its fruits come wrapped in thin paper husks that resemble a lantern you might string over your yard for a harvest garden party. In fact, a botanical relative is a plant known as the Chinese Lantern, which looks similar to a ground cherry, but has a Halloween-orange husk and is grown for ornamental and traditional medicinal uses.

While the fruit might be a breakout star here, they’re commonplace in South America. “It’s something that people gather on walks. Everyone has them at their house,” says Maria Cuellar, a Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D student who grew up in Bogota, Colombia.

“I remember going out with my dad and picking them. We didn’t consider it foraging. We’d just go pick them.”

She says that in Colombian homes, bowls of the fruit are often left out to snack on, and that forward-thinking chefs today are experimenting with sauces and reductions much in the same way a Pittsburgh chef might work with an indigenous crop such a ramp or a pawpaw.

“In the past few years there’s been a big resurgence in Colombia of chefs and food-focused people embracing local traditions. So there are a lot of endemic fruits that are only grown in Colombia that people are using. I’m from there, and I don’t even know what all of them are,” she says.

Although Pittsburgh’s climate likely won’t be hospitable to most of those fruits, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one of them might end up on our plates in the near future. Just think about the ground cherry’s close cousin Physalis philadelphica, better known as a tomatillo. It, too, was relatively hard to find in Pittsburgh’s backyards and markets just a few years ago.

Lee Stivers, an educator with Penn State Extension, says, “I’ve been involved in the produce industry for 30 years and one thing that’s constant is that people like new things. They love to try new things to grow and eat, and then they become standard and we move on to the next new thing.” She’s hoping to see more okra in backyard gardens next year, and notes that she’s grown several varieties quite successfully in the last few years.

My favorite way to eat ground cherries is to pick the ripe ones — they have tan lanterns -- right off the ground and eat them on the spot. I pull back the husks and enjoy the chocolate and pineapple-ish aroma and then pop them into my mouth. The flavor is subtlety tropical -- bright, tangy and with just a hint of creaminess.

If some of them do manage to make it into the house, they’re terrific in jams, salads and dipped in chocolate. My favorite cooked application is a Colombian hot salsa, Aji de Uchuvas. The savory sauce is especially terrific on carnitas, but you’ll want to experiment on a number of dishes. If for whatever reason you still haven’t eaten all of the ground cherries, leave the husks on the fruit, store at room temperature and away from direct sunlight, and they’ll stay good for a few weeks.

It’s a bit early for next year’s garden planning, but if you’re considering growing ground cherries, be aware that they take up quite a lot of space and have a habit of re-seeding themselves. I’m growing one plant — ’Aunt Molly’s,’ a Polish variety that’s on the Slow Food Ark of Taste list — and that seems to be enough.

At the moment, it’s unlikely you’ll find a regular supply of these fantastic fruits at the larger grocery stores, Ms. Stivers says. “I’ve never seen then marketed in any way through the larger food-distribution chains. It’s been more of a backyard-garden kind of plant.”

According to Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, that might not always be the case with ground cherries. “As with most specialty produce, demand is usually gradually, then suddenly,” she explains via email.

Her company began distributing Colombian cape gooseberries in 1987, and some area Giant Eagle stores do sometimes order them. (According to Giant Eagle spokesperson Dick Roberts, Market District stores are expecting a shipment in time for this weekend.) Interested customers should talk to their store’s produce manager.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the ground cherry is soon to be an easier find. The plant is quite disease-resistant and the fruits have a long shelf life. In the meantime, hit any farmers market for the next month and you’ll find someone who is selling them. At the Thursday Market Square Farmers Market, for instance, Clarion River Organics has boxes of them for $5 each. 

As for Lucy, she’s hasn’t stopped stealing ground cherries. I’m OK with that. I might want to protect my tomatoes from birds and greens from rabbits, but sharing with your dog is never a bad thing.

Aji De Uchuvas

PG tested

3½ ounces grams husked ground cherries

1/2 small white onion, chopped

7 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons sugar

7 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

3½ tablespoons olive oil

½ to 1 poblano pepper, chopped finely

1 teaspoon salt

Pulse ground cherries, onion and water in a food processor.

Combine with the rest of the ingredients in a small pan and cook at a low boil until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.

Once cooled, this sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about a month. It won’t last that long.

-- Adapted from My Colombian Cocina (mycolombiancocina.com)


Hal B. Klein: thismanskitchen@gmail.com.

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