Although serious, tromp-through-the-woods foragers may scoff at my claim, I’ve begun to think of the past few months as my season of foraged foods. With camera, notebook and canvas tote in hand, I’ve been heading off to southeastern Pennsylvania every other weekend to see old friends and collect uncultivated fruit on their 30-acre farm.
There, on the edge of a dense thicket, we’ve plucked black raspberries, wineberries and blackberries from jagged vines and snapped mulberries, elderberries and sprays of delicate elderflowers from their leafy branches.
Thanks to these excursions and my friends’ vast knowledge of wild plants, I’ve learned to differentiate between the edible and poisonous, and the ripe and unripe; often there is a direct correlation between ripeness and edibility. I’ve also developed an even greater appreciation for local, seasonal and oft-forgotten foods.
Ground cherries known by many names
Topping my list of wild, wondrous and overlooked fruits is the dainty ground cherry. Found dangling from low, bushy plants in early fall, a ground cherry resembles a tiny Chinese lantern or pint-sized tomatillo. Similar to tomatillos and tomatoes, it is a member of the nightshade family. Occasionally, it goes by the names husk tomato, strawberry tomato, cape gooseberry and its scientific genus, physalis.
More from Zester Daily:
When ripe, the ground cherry drops off the plant and onto the ground. If you pick up the fruit and peel back its straw-colored, tissue-like husk, you uncover a waxy amber berry that looks a bit like a cranberry or small cherry. Bite into the ripe berry’s thin skin and you will taste a pleasing combination of pineapple, strawberry and apricot. Sweet but not cloying, juicy but not sticky, this is an extraordinary little fruit.
What amazes me most about the ground cherry is that until a few weeks ago I had never eaten or even seen one. Considering that ground cherries are indigenous to the Americas, can be found in every state except Alaska and are commonly grows in the East and Midwest, I am stunned by my ignorance.
And yet, I’m not. In spite of the plant’s ability to thrive in poor soils, survive neglect and produce baskets of beautiful berries, the ground cherry has never caught on in the United States. Only Native Americans have been known to consume copious quantities of this vitamin C-rich fruit.
Outside the U.S., people feel more passionately about ground cherries. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the south of France and other temperate regions of Europe cultivate these plants commercially.
In Europe and elsewhere, cooks put ground cherries in pies, compotes, jams and sauces. Some dry the sweet berries and use them as flavorful substitutes for raisins in breads, scones, cookies and sweet rolls. Others pull back but leave on the fruits’ calyx, using the husks as handles to dip the raw berries into melted chocolate or caramel.
In England ground cherries appear in home decor as well as in desserts. Left in their paper shells, the long-lasting fruit brightens floral decorations during the winter months.
Although I may have lucked out and found a private source, you don’t have to drive hours or befriend farm owners to get ground cherries. Imported from New Zealand, they are available in springtime at well-stocked grocery stores. You can also find them in the fall at farm stands and farmers markets.
If you can’t track them down, you can always attempt to grow your own. Flourishing in a variety of soils and in garden pots, ground cherries require little else besides a sunny spot. The plants reach about 3 feet in height and possess green, somewhat velvety, heart-shaped leaves.
Whether you’re collecting them from the ground or a local market, look for fruit that’s plump and golden to orange-yellow in color. Green ground cherries are unripe and may prove poisonous for some consumers.
Choose berries that are still encased in their parchment covers. To prevent spoilage, leave them in their husks until you’re ready to consume them.
Placed in a paper bag and refrigerated, ground cherries will keep for several months. Before using them, pull off the husk and wash off the fruit. Ripe ground cherries can be eaten raw or cooked.
Ground Cherry Crumble
Prep Time: 5 to 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 35 to 40 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
3¼ cups ground cherries
1 large Granny Smith or other tart apple, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¾ cup rolled oats
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch ground ginger
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease a deep 8-inch baking dish and set aside.
2. Toss together the ground cherries, apple, lemon juice and granulated sugar. Spoon the mixture into the greased baking dish.
3. In a separate bowl, stir together the brown sugar, rolled oats, flour and ginger. Using your fingers or a fork, incorporate the chunks of butter until you have a well-formed, crumbly topping.
4. Spread the topping evenly over the ground cherries. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and bubbling. Serve warm.
Main photo: Ground cherry crumble. Credit: Kathy Hunt