Monday, July 2, 2012

Husk Tomato

From the smallest of seeds grows one of the most sweet, overlooked and versatile of summer’s gifts. Growing about two feet high, and laterally spreading with equal dimension I am talking about husk tomatoes: ground cherries, or cape gooseberries, the latter name due to their introduction to South Africa, exhibits few of its tomato family traits. I came across them about a decade ago at a farmer’s market and assumed it was a tomatillo. The grower informed me that it was a fruit that had savory tendencies, which was more than enough to seal the deal. Plus, I live by the credo, if I haven't seen it before I must try it. Regardless of the name you find them under, grab them, you wont be disappointed.

This South American native is easily missed, for at a glance you think you are spying a diminutive tomatillo, its cousin, due to the papery jacket (called a calyx) that conceals the ripening fruit and a dense meaty interior. However, unlike its larger, far more tart doppelganger the husk tomato is edible when the outer husk dries and turns a pale brown, and the fruit itself is a golden-orange -- the green, under-ripe ones should be voided, leave the Salsa Verde for the tomatillo.

When ripe they fall to the ground and continue to ripen, and it is best to store them in a cool, dry spot, for up to a few weeks making them even more explosive (keep them in their husk). Their nature of needing to fall from their branch telegraphing their readiness makes them not a particularly viable commercial plant, even though, they have a strong shelf life and dynamic flavor, which is a benefit to those of us looking for foods that have not been over manipulated in a laboratory and the industrialization of our foods. At only a mere 75 calories in a cup they deliver a good dose of vitamins A, C and B-3 beyond the pleasure they give your mouth, so why aren’t they touted as enthusiastically as the blueberry? Do they need to get an association? The flavor is an intense pineapple-like sweetness with an almost cheese-like finish. Eaten mid to late summer you will most likely find yourself popping these “tic-tacs” into your mouth leaving a trail of husks as you walk home. I would not stop there for they demonstrate great adaptability in the kitchen. Tossed with corn, chili and cilantro for a prefect summertime salad or paired with blueberries and white chocolate for a decadent bread pudding. I won’t forget to make some preserves with them as well with a hint of rose petal or pineapple sage.

If you have a bit of space and the desire, husk tomatoes are easy to grow, which is some compensation when it comes time to search the ground before a chipmunk finds them. Germinate them about 4 weeks prior to the last average frost indoors – they will take about 2 weeks for the seeds to sprout. Give them about 90 days of warm, sunny weather, and you will find yourself crawling on hands and knees to collect these gift-wrapped orbs. Less arduous and definitely less dirty, start hunting your farmer’s markets starting July in the south and on the west coast, or a month later in the north for these special treats and let’s make this New World native one of the delicacies we pine for every summer. 

Corn-Husk Tomato Salad - yields 6 to 8 servings
4 ears of white corn
1-pint husk tomatoes
1-hot chili - such as a habenero or jalapeño (seeds removed to lessen the heat)
1/4-cup fresh lime juice
1-teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2-tablespoons olive oil
1-small red onion - diced
1-red pepper - diced
1/4-cup torn basil leaves
1/-cup roughly chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the corn kernels from their cob and place them in a bowl.  Peel the skins from the husk tomatoes and wash.  Split the chili in half and remove the seeds. Finely dice the chili and toss all the ingredients together. Let the salad sit for 30 minutes at room temperature before serving in order to let the flavors meld.

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