Monday, September 03, 2007

Grounding Myself

Every year at the farmers' market, late August signals the harvest of ground cherries, an odd little fruit that resembles tiny tomatillos.

Ground cherries, also known as cape gooseberries, come from the broader group of plants known as nightshades (which, though it has its poisonous members, also includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). So it should come as no surprise that within the husk, the little round fruit looks like a miniature yellow tomato.

Still, it's an odd-looking creature, and I've steered clear of it for a few years, not sure of what I would do with a bag full of ground cherries.

I came across a recipe in Simply in Season two years ago that nearly tempted me to try this fruit, but it never happened. Last year I found a recipe for "Poha Pie" based on Euell Gibbons's recipe in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I got as far as copying it.

Third time's the charm, they say, and this year I got the third and final push needed to persuade me to try something new.

The Bistro Chef, aside from his obvious work and his breakfast stints at the Inn, writes a column once a month for the weekly paper, and in this month's piece, he waxed poetic over the abundance of fresh produce available at the market, particularly the ground cherry.

Describing the fruit as having "a unique flavor with hints of strawberry and pineapple," he further piqued my interest by indicating the ground cherry's suitability for dipping in melted dark chocolate. (Mention chocolate, and I definitely show interest.)

So I succumbed. I brought home a bag of ground cherries from the market Saturday with every intention of making the Poha Pie.

Temptation rose up quickly, though, when I met up with the Innkeeper and watched her feed berry after berry to her 14-month-old daughter Little Bird, who ate each one with sober concentration followed by eagerness for more. With such a vivid example before me, I had to taste the raw fruit first, just to understanad the taste for myself and to imagine what might go well with it. And with that first bite, all my structured plans went right out the window.

See, the Bistro Chef was only half right when he described the taste. There's a tart edge to the sweetness that reminds me of fresh pineapple, but there's also a deeper, creamier background flavor that, surprisingly, reminded me of toasted and ground hazelnuts.

Unfortunately, I don't have any hazelnuts on hand at the moment, but I did have a bunch of fresh lemon basil from my friend's farm, and one small leaf resting on one little berry evoked a dramatic "Oh, yes!" when I tasted the combination.

That's why I decided to adapt both the pie recipe and my own date bar recipe to make ground cherry bars: a shortbread base with chopped lemon basil worked into the dough, and a topping made from ground cherries simmered in a thick lemon basil-infused syrup.

The syrup, alas, was not quite thick enough, something I realized as I poured the liquid over the unbaked crust. But the result was actually a lovely change of pace.

The liquid sank into the shortbread, causing it to bubble and carmelize around the edges -- as well as to blend the fruit mixture into the buttery, lemony base.

To me, it tasted almost like a creamy version of a lemon bar, with little of the tang except for the occasional mouth-tightening bite, and though the strawberry-ish flavor seemed to be lost, the gentle citrus taste and aroma gave me plenty to savor.

It's not a picture-perfect sort of dessert by any means, and I'm sure the recipe itself could use a little more work (but I'll try to capture it here if you care to head back to your own kitchens to give it a whirl).

On a very busy, warm day, though, I'm more than happy to let go of perfection so that I can enjoy something new.

Rustic Ground Cherry Bars

The lemon basil syrup was something I decided to make separately to use in lemonade and iced tea, but it seemed to fit with the flavor of the ground cherries. If you don't have lemon basil, I'm not sure that regular basil would work as well. You can try substituting lemon balm or lemon verbena or, as a last resort, lemon juice and peel.

Lemon Basil Syrup
2 c sugar
1 c water
1 large sprig fresh lemon basil

Combine all ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, until sugar has dissolved and syrup has thickened slightly. Remove basil. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour into bottle. Makes nearly 2 c syrup.

1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c spelt flour
1/2 c sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp minced fresh lemon basil leaves
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9" square baking pan and set aside.

Whisk together flours, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and basil. Cut in butter with pastry cutter until mixture resembles thick crumbs. Scrape shortbread dough into prepared pan and press evenly into pan. Set aside.

1/4 to 1/2 sugar (depending on how much syrup you use)
3 T flour
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 to 1/2 c lemon basil syrup
2 to 3 c ground cherries, husked and washed

Combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, and syrup in saucepan and boil until thickened. Add ground cherries and cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes (longer if you wish a thicker topping).

Pour fruit mixture over shortbread, spreading evenly. Set pan in oven and bake for 40 minutes at 350 F.

Cool on wire rack before cutting into bars or squares.

Makes 12 to 16



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