My Father’s Garden: Pineapple Tomatillos (a.k.a. Ground Cherries)

Yesterday I flew in to Indiana to visit my folks, and stepping out of the airport was like stepping directly into a hot bowl of soup.  If you are thirsty here you can put a green tea bag in your mouth and just suck in a lungful of that hot, moist air.  Instant tea. So yeah, it is pretty humid, and sort of a shock after a decade in semi-arid Colorado.  The major upside to this weather is the absolutely stunning produce that grows here as a result.  My father claims that he is “cutting back on his garden” each year–so down to only a few thousand plants now–and honestly, after working my butt off in Colorado to get a few scrawny looking plants it is both wonderous and a bit depressing to walk through the jungle that is my parent’s back yard.  Dad gave me the garden tour, including the huge variety of tomatoes that are growing everywhere.  Below is a visual sample of some of the smaller varieties, including a small and delicate white tomato called Snowball that is mild and low acid:

Some of mom’s gorgeous flowers, nicely juxtaposed with dad’s garden boots:

Some of the more attractive bug locals:

I could do at least a thousand blogs on each variety of produce in this garden, but for today I was pretty obsessed with a humble little “vegefruit” called Pineapple Tomatillos, more commonly known as ground cherries.  These are heirloom plants that used to be more widely grown for jams and eating out of hand, but they are tough to find now unless you grow them or you live in the Midwest and like to forage.  They reseed readily and grow low to the ground, and have the little paper husk that you will recognize from their green salsa-variety cousins.  Their relative rarity now is probably due to their perishable qualities and the fact that they are not ripe until they fall to the ground, and they ripen in stages.  Here is the plant:

You can see the yellowed tomatillos littering the ground–those are the relatively unlovely but ripe fruits:

I removed the husks (they slip off quite easily) and rinsed them off and ended up with about four cups:

They look like little jewels, really.  I love to eat them out of hand–they have a distinct pineapple flavor with an afterthought of tomato, and they are mildly sweet.  I wanted to do something a little more unusual than jam, so I decided to go for a savory-sweet chicken dish.  It turned out quite well and I have the full recipe below, but here are the visual steps.  I dusted some bone-in skinless chicken thighs with finely ground white cornmeal and browned them in olive oil:

After they were nice and golden I dumped in some finely chopped shallots, red peppers, the ground cherries, some pineapple juice, and some balsamic vinegar and garlic:

Cook according to the directions below, and you will end up with this:

It was quite delicious.  The rest of those ground cherries will probably become jam, but this was soooo good.  Here is the full recipe:

Cornmeal Crusted Chicken with Ground Cherry Pan Sauce
Author: 
Recipe type: Main
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-6
 
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs, skin and excess fat removed
  • ½ cup finely ground cornmeal
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • ¼ cup finely chopped shallot
  • ¼ cup diced red pepper
  • 1½ cups ground cherries/pineapple tomatillos
  • ⅔ cup unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
Instructions
  1. Dredge the chicken in the cornmeal, salt, and pepper to coat lightly. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large, deep saucepan and brown the chicken until golden on both sides.
  2. Add the remaining olive oil, shallot, red pepper, ground cherries, pineapple juice, vinegar, and garlic and increase heat to high until the ingredients begin to boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until the ground cherries have broken down.
  3. Uncover and increase the heat to high and cook for another ten minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and the chicken is cooked through. Adjust the salt and sprinkle with flat leaf parsley, if desired.

 

I also made a batch of Dry-fried Fresh Okra Curry with Tomato Mint Relish, which I will include in a future blog.  I am truly in produce paradise.

-Angela

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9 Responses to My Father’s Garden: Pineapple Tomatillos (a.k.a. Ground Cherries)

  1. Harrison August 4, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    The dish is quite lovely! Just seeing the ground cherries made my (vegetarian) mouth water.

    Seeing the ground cherries reminded me of something Rick Bayless once told the viewers of his PBS show. He was making tomatillo salsa (with the big, green, agriculturally grown variety), and mentioned– in passing– that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her family's picking and canning "tomatillos." My suspicion is Bayless was seeing what he wanted to in Ingalls Wilder's words, since there are wild ground cherries that grow in Wisconsin, where her family lived for a short time.

  2. FRS August 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Yes, I am sure that is true–they were grown and foraged and used for preserves. I am sure it wasn't that green ones that we think of today!

  3. Patricia Stoltey August 5, 2010 at 1:08 am #

    Oh, man, did this post ever take me back to Indiana and living across the road from your folks. I still think about their garden as I, like you, try to persuade Colorado tomato plants to produce real fruit.

    Your chicken and ground cherry recipe sounds wonderful, and your photos are stunning. Delightful post, Angela.

    Pat

  4. FRS August 5, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    Thank you Pat, I really appreciate that. And I do get some nice produce in Colorado, but the tomatoes just do not compare. Not even close.

  5. Yenta Mary August 5, 2010 at 10:55 am #

    I just bought chicken thighs last night … now I know what I'm going to do with them. And how come MY tomatoes are just staring at me and thumbing their noses, while just one state away your parents have this AMAZING garden going on??? I'm so jealous!

  6. Eric August 5, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    Having had the good fortune to sample the leftovers last night, I can confirm that the recipe is FANTASTIC! The zucchini basil fritters were also amazing, if not as visually stunning. YUM! Oh, and what time is dinner tonight? :)

  7. FRS August 5, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Mary, I lived a bit more north in Michigan (the U.P.) but I never grew tomatoes like this! Must also be a soil thing.

    Eric–I believe dinner will be ice cream :)

  8. Denise Heikinen September 29, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Beautiful caterpillar too! I plan on trying the recipe with regular tomatillos as I doubt I will find these ground cherries around here (in UP of Michigan). I could probably replace the pineapple juice with something too because regular tomatillos don’t taste like pineapple. But what? Not tomato, apple, orange juice. Maybe chicken broth?

    • Angela September 29, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      They will grow in the U.P., but I never saw them for sale there–in the stores they are often called “Cape Gooseberries.” I think if you were going to use regular tomatillos the pineapple juice would still give a nice level of sweetness, but yes, chicken broth would also work well. Let me know if you try that!

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