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Production team | 14:59 UK time, Monday, 16 November 2009

Alys FowlerI can hardly believe that on my birthday I was harvesting Mexican ground cherries. This wonderful warm autumn brought all sorts of surprise extra harvests.

Chillies got a chance to turn properly red, seed collecting has been heaven and I have had plenty of autumn lettuces, far beyond their usual quality. But I know that the minute my birthday comes, the temperature will drop.

Many lettuces will make it through to December before botrytis or frost gets them as will the hardier stuff such as oriental mustards, Swiss chard, kales and cabbages. However, as they soldier on their flavour will become more intense as the days become colder.

By February many of the oriental mustards, such as Giant Red Mustard, becomes so hot that they blow your head off if you eat them raw. At this point it's best to flash cook them; 60 seconds in boiling water or swirl them round a wok of hot oil, just enough to wilt them. Then off the heat as the chemicals that make them hot quickly become bitter if cooked for too long. Drizzle on some groundnut oil and a little soy, perhaps add a little friendly garlic, some toasted sesame seeds, a handful of noodles and you have lunch!

Anyhow, I shouldn't be thinking about noodles as I have a small mountain of ground cherries to de-husk and do something with. These are cousins to the larger more common and slightly more sour-tasting tomatillos which definitely need to be cooked. Ground cherries are good enough to eat raw, but their delicious pineapple taste is almost better in a pie or crumble. You can tell when a ground cherry is ripe because the inside is a lovely pale golden orange and the husks are papery. If the inside is still green it will be very sour.

I've been experimenting making clafoutis, which is a kind of egg-cooked custard dish where you can use any fruit you like. It's basically eggs, sugar, milk and a little flour. You line the dish with whatever fruit, in my case ground cherries, and pour over the batter and bake in a hot oven for about 20mins. When it puffs up take it out, pour on a little more sugar and place under the grill. You're aiming for a soufflé consistency which is kind of eggy, so if that's not your thing, stick to crumbles.

I have to say I was entirely neglectful of the ground cherries. I planted them out towards the end of May and did little all summer other than bemoan the fact that I had misunderstood what ground cherries were, thinking they were just a synonym of tomatillos. They're not, they are a different species, tomatillos are Physalis ixocarpa and Mexican Ground Cherry is Physalis prunosa. They have furrier leaves and smaller fruit, and I think they probably like slightly warmer weather - not that I didn't get a good harvest, they just seem very small.


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