Food of the Week: Husk Cherries
Posted on August 14, 2012
A Love Story, courtesy of Emma Christensen, www.blogger.com/profile/03004468532692748333
Husk cherries stole my heart this summer. They rustle in your hand, weighing nothing and smelling of dust. It seems impossible that inside each paper lantern can hide one single golden berry. They’re the humble Cinderella of the farmer’s market, for sure.
I walked by them for weeks, achingly curious about what wonderful delight could go for $5 a half pint, until I finally caught one of the farms offering samples. I hovered nearby, pretending to inspect a box of bean varietals while sneaking covert glances at the farmer’s demonstration of the proper way to husk these cherries. He grasped the fruit by the stem and gently pinched the shell until the berry popped out the bottom. Denuded berries were passed and sampled. The reaction from the crowd was mixed. A few “mmm…”s and some “Huh”s. One or two folks paused dramatically before saying “Now that’s different” and wandering off. My heart fluttered. Could my summer crush really be a bust? When the group departed, I sidled in and casually picked up one of the remaining samples.
“Ever had a husk cherry before?” The farmer asked.
“Me? Um…” (As a chronic know-it-all, my first instinct is always to feign experience.) “Well, actually no.”
“Oh great!” He said with real enthusiasm, “You’ll love these!”
And without further ado, he popped a marble-sized berry into my open palm. I looked at it dubiously. It was yellow-orange (I’d been expecting red). I could see thin veins running just underneath the taut skin. I gingerly lifted my hand, rolled the berry into my mouth, and bit down. The skin broke without any resistance and my mouth was filled with the subtle, caramelized flavor of just-baked cinnamon bread. I kid you not. I thought immediately of bread. And my second thought was, “Omigod, omigod, omigod, what can I DO with this fruit?”
I’ve seen them called husk cherries, ground cherries, husk tomatoes, and cape gooseberries (though I think the last one is actually a different variety). These guys are indeed cousins to the similar-looking tomatillo, as well as to tomatoes and wild tobacco. The taste is described as vanilla pineapple, which I was able to agree with upon extensive further sampling and a gentle “down, boy” to my baker proclivities. I would also add “honey” to that description. They range in size from pea-sized to plump marbles like the one I first sampled. In my research, I also discovered that this plant is in the “endangered” section of the Slow Food USA Ark–Rock on, Boston-area farmers! I also found evidence that this would make an excellent container plant. I happen to have several containers and a “warm but not too sunny” back porch….see where I’m going with this? (Yup, already planning next summer’s garden and it’s not even November yet. This is going to be a long winter.)
So what CAN you do with a handful of husk cherries? The flavor is so subtle that it can get easily overwhelmed by other fruits, so they’re perhaps best as solo-players in a green salad, thrown into a fruit-mix or paired with a subtle-yet-tart fruit. They’re high in pectin, so if you can afford it or steal enough from friends with CSA’s, you can make some very lovely jam. One site I found recommended dipping them in chocolate, which immediately sent my salivary glands into over-production. Personally? I couldn’t let go of that first baked-bread taste and have had visions of tartlettes dancing in my head.