#LEARNABOUT: Vol 6.1. Ground Cherry/Tomatillo

This issue of #LEARNABOUT will be the first part of a three-part series featuring various plants from the nightshade/eggplant family  Solan...

This issue of #LEARNABOUT will be the first part of a three-part series featuring various plants from the nightshade/eggplant family Solanaceae. In this first issue, we will look into two fruits that are very closely related to each other: ground cherries and tomatillos. In the next issue, we will look into many other kinds of edible berries from the Solanaceae family. In the last issue, we will take a deeper look of the chemistry behind poisonous nature of the Solanaceae family.
groundcherries and tomatillos
Ground cherries and tomatillos are both from the genus Physalis. Ground cherries commonly refer to the species Physalis peruviana, and tomatillos commonly refer to the species Physalis philadelphica. However, keep in mind, these species are just two among the hundreds of species being grown worldwide.
If you are confused about the family-genus-species Latin names, please visit Vol.5.1 where we talk about the botanical nomenclature.

What are they?

Ground cherries, despite how its name sounds, have nothing to do with cherries. In the US, ground cherries can go by a lot of different names: Cape gooseberry (surprisingly, it has nothing to do with gooseberries either), Inca berry, Pichuberry, and golden berry (which is dried ground cherries).
Just like ground cherries, tomatillos also have a lot of different names: Mexican husk tomato, Mexican green tomato, and miltomate. 

goldenberries (dried groundcherries)

Tastewise, ground cherries and tomatillos are like the sweet and tart versions of each other -- and this is why we have decided to introduce both of them to you at once. Note that tomatillos are not really sour, but are very subtly tart.
As previously mentioned, both ground cherries and tomatillos are from the Physalis genus, and one of the common traits of this genus is that the fruits are often always surrounded by a a large, papery husk derived from the calyx, partly or fully enclosing the fruit.
Ground cherries are usually smaller in size compared to tomatillos, and the ripe fruits also appear to be yellow (tomatillos commonly appear to be green), but they can also be yellow, red, or even purple.
The texture of both ground cherries and tomatillos resembles closely to tomatoes, and they have many little seeds, which is a common feature of the Solanaceae family. Fortunately, these seeds don't have a very hard shell, so you can eat them without any problem, and they actually add some more interesting textures to the fruits.

Cross sections of groundcherries and tomatillos

Why should I eat them?

I guess that us telling you ground cherries are sweet and tomatillos are tart has not convinced you to try them out yet. Indeed, ground cherries and tomatillos are much more complicated than just sweet and tart.
The taste of ground cherries is sweet, aromatic, and has a surprising twist of savoriness. People who have eaten ground cherries will describe it as tomatoes+melons, and occasionally the taste of grilled filet mignon.
The taste of tomatillos is tart, a little savory, and when grilled, tastes like grilled tomato+pepper (which unsurprisingly both belong to the Solanaceae family).
So if you want to add a little twist to your regular tomato salad, give ground cherries/tomatillos a shot. It will for sure intrigue your guest who is guaranteed to ask you about that one fruit that they taste and can't identify.
Nutrition wise, these fruits have are very comparable to tomatoes: low in calories but high in nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and pectin.

Where can I find them? 

Ground cherries are usually ripe at around this time of the year, late September to late October. You are most likely to find them fresh in your local farmer's markets.

Groundcherries in a farmer's market 

If you are looking for the dried golden berries, you might want to try your luck at some organic grocery stores and your local co-ops.
Tomatillos can be easily found in most grocery stores, as it is a very common ingredient in hispanic cuisines.
If you go to farmer's markets often, you might even stumble upon another species of the Physalis genus: Physalis alkekengi.  The common name of this plant is called Chinese/Japanese lantern. This species does not produce edible fruits, but it produces bright orange husks/calyces and fruits. It is often used as an ornamental plant for flower arrangements in the fall/winter.

Chinese/Japanese lanterns

Because it's shaped like a lantern, and lanterns are important cultural symbols in both Japanese and Chinese cultures, this plant is often used in rituals as offerings to guide the souls of the deceased.

How to eat ground cherries/tomatillos

  • Tomatillos are a key ingredient in green sauce/salsa (salsa verde) in Latin American food. However, you can, of course, substitute tomatillos with ground cherries. You will get a sweeter version of the salsa. Our next Chef Says section will feature salsa verde. Stay tuned!
    salsa verde
  • Eat ground cherries raw. They are delicious. Just pop them out of the husks/calyces. 
  • Eat them in salads. Substitute cherry tomatoes with either of ground cherries/tomatillos. 
  • Ground cherries/tomatillos can stay fresh up to several months in the fridge if you leave the husks/calyces intact. They also freeze very well. 
  • Make jam out of ground cherries!
    ground cherry jam
  • The healthiness of the husks/calyces is a key indicator to the health of the fruit. If the husks/calyces seem robust and seals well and are not too translucent, then you got yourself a healthy fruit. The ground cherry husks usually appear yellow to brown-yellow, and the tomatillo husks usually appear green to yellow-brown. 

How not to eat ground cherries/tomatillos

  • The green tomatillos are not often consumed raw. Try grilling them, they will taste much better. Or in a salad, accompanied by many other tastes, tomatillo will probably take much better.
  • Tomatillos, after peeling off the calyces, are often very sticky. Wash them thoroughly before cooking/serving. 
  • Do not eat the fruits if the fruits seem too soft (this means that they might be overripe and starts rotting). They should have the integrity of cherry tomatoes at touch. Also, if the fruit appears more brown than yellow, don't eat them (same reason as above).

Flavor Indexes

ground cherry flavor index
tomatillo flavor index

(image credits: groundcherry/tomatillo photos: http://www.neoseeds.cz/ | http://www.naturespride.eu/; goldenberries:http://www.tastyhealthproducts.com/organic-golden-berry.html; cross sections: http://countryfruits.com.co/about-us |  http://slicethin.com/2013/05/02/tomatillos-are-not-tomatoes/; salsa verde: https://baileyfarmsinc.com/salsa-verde/; groundcherry jam: http://www.laughingduckgardens.com/ldblog.php/tag/ground-cherry/)

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