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Husk tomatoes

(post, Tammy Donroe Inman)

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For me, the most interesting farmers' market offering of late summer is husk tomatoes. Never heard of them? Also known as ground cherries, strawberry tomatoes, and dwarf Cape gooseberries, it’s no wonder that they’re little understood. 

Are they sweet berries or savory tomatoes? And what the heck do you do with them?

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Husk tomatoes are neither cherries nor gooseberries. Their papery, Chinese-lantern-like husks offer the best clue as to their pedigree. Like tomatillos, husk tomatoes belong to the genus Physalis, which is a member of the Solanaceae family, better known for producing peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes.

These low-growing, petite nightshades evolved in the warmer, wilder parts of the American continent. In fact, you can sometimes find husk tomatoes growing along the edges of open fields; just make sure they have husks to distinguish them from poisonous, non-husked look-alikes. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Husk tomatoes are covered in papery husks."]

Husk tomatoes are turning up more frequently at farmers' markets and CSAs due to their unusual flavor and heirloom quirks. About the size of a blueberry, a ground cherry tastes similar to a super-sweet cherry tomato, with a hint of — strawberry? Mango? What is that mysterious flavor? You just might keep eating them to find out. 

Author and naturalist Euell Gibbons declared this elusive essence “so good it doesn’t have to resemble something else.”

To many, husk tomatoes are an acquired taste, but their hard-to-classify flavor is the key to their versatility. They lend a unique tropical flavor to otherwise garden-variety ingredients — an almost otherworldly treat if you try to eat mostly from your local, non-tropical foodshed. 

Not only are husk tomatoes addictive out of hand, but they're great tossed into fruit salads, scattered over green salads, or chopped into a terrific relish for ladling over fresh grilled fish or scooping up with tortilla chips. 

Harvesting husk tomatoes is easy, as they usually just fall off the vine at the perfect stage of ripeness. (Where I live in Massachusetts, that's August through September.) Simply lift up the branches and gather the ground cherries that have collected on the ground beneath, avoiding those with husks that are darkened. The husks should be beige, with a dry, parchment-like quality; the fruits should be a rosy yellow when removed from their papery wrappers. 

If the fruits are still tinged with green, let them sit in their husks in a cool, dry place for several days to a week, and they’ll sweeten up. 

In addition to their many raw uses, husk tomatoes also make wonderful pies and preserves. That is, if you can gather enough of them. If not, they match up well with apples in yet another example of serendipitous seasonal pairings.  

That just leaves the matter of their confusing nomenclature. My own personal semantics: I call them husk tomatoes in savory preparations, while I find the name ground cherries sounds infinitely more appealing in desserts. Dwarf Cape gooseberries? Forget about it; that explanation might take all day!

p(bio). Based in Boston, Tammy Donroe blogs at Food on the Food.


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