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Summertime Sensation: Fresh Cherries

Sweet or Sour
Tart cherries, mostly the Montmorency and Morello varieties, are also known as sour or pie cherries. They are rarely available fresh, except occasionally from local farm stands. Notoriously mouth-puckering when eaten raw, these cherries require cooking or baking plus a generous hand with sugar to mellow their astringency. Consequently, they are highly valued for their acidic punch in sauces, preserves, and pies. Because tart cherries are delicate and wither easily, they must be used right away or preserved by canning, freezing, or drying.

Sweet cherries are easier to handle; the hundreds of varieties that are available ship much better than their tart cousins. Bings compose 90 percent of the US sweet cherry crop and are grown mostly in Washington, Oregon, and California. These plump, deep red cherries start ripening in mid-June, but small quantities of earlier and late-ripening varieties extend the season from early June through the end of August.

Other popular sweet cherries are the well-loved Rainier, a golden fruit with a red blush, and the similar-looking Queen Anne, sometimes referred to as Royal Anne or Napoleon. (These are the cherries used for maraschinos.) Both varieties are fresh in the markets beginning in late June in the Pacific Northwest and in July in the East.

Fruitful Ideas
During the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC, Helix Lounge bartender Tracy Stack mixes up her “Awesome Cherry Blossom” cocktail in a supersize martini glass. She tops her concoction with a jaunty cherry molded into a tiny block of Jell-O. It’s a touch that’s more for fun than for flavor. But that’s hardly the case in kitchens, where chefs use cherries for color, texture, taste, and sparkle in everything from soups to sweets.

When Yakima Valley sweet cherries start coming in, chef Leslie Mackie at Macrina Bakery Café in Seattle brandies them, chutneys them, pops them into honey-laced custard tarts, and folds them into crepes and cherry almond coffee cake. For the Fourth of July holiday, Bing cherries star in classic American apple tarts, where she combines one part cherries with three parts apples.


Mackie values red cherries for what she calls their “naturally balanced, sweet-and-sour juxtaposition.” She uses Queen Annes and Rainiers for their eye-catching color in salads and tarts. Because yellow cherries are milder in flavor than reds, she suggests perking them up with a bit of lemon juice. Most important, she cautions, “Don’t adulterate cherries by adding too much sugar. It’s best to use them at peak ripeness and let their natural sweetness shine.”

Mackie especially loves to serve cherries in sweet-and-salty pairings, as in a salad of roast chicken, roasted onions, cherries, and gorgonzola cheese. Her kitchen also offers fresh cherry relish over a wedge of goat cheese dusted with lemon zest or with gorgonzola dolce, served with crusty bread and toasted almonds.

Fresh cherries inspire Chef Carl Schroeder at Arterra Restaurant in San Diego to create a chorus of sweet and savory delights, starting with a refreshing chilled Bing cherry soup, based on a red wine reduction with star anise and cinnamon, as well as a Rainier cherry soup topped with green apple sorbet.

In salads, a favorite combination of Schroeder’s includes cherries steeped in white balsamic vinegar mixed with salty candied walnuts, zesty greens, and assorted fresh stone fruits, including cherries. He dresses the salad with a cherry vinaigrette and positions a tiny blue cheese soufflé on the side. For dinner, Schroeder makes burgers from ground duck leg, onion, and garlic, which he tops with seared foie gras and wild watercress. Alongside, he serves a ramekin of cherry–Dijon mustard relish loaded with fresh, quartered cherries. Another entrée pairs duck breast cooked medium-rare with a sliver of seared foie gras, which the chef laces with a cherry pan-reduction sauce. The marriage is a classic one in which the butteriness of the foie gras plays perfectly off the sweetness of the cherries.


Light-textured companions can also be matched with cherries. Rob Klink, executive chef at Oceanaire Seafood Room in Washington DC, combines cherries and shellfish without hesitation. “The clean, crisp flavors and textures of many fruits highlight the delicate flavors of seafood without being overpowering.” To wit, Klink mixes greens including mizuna or arugula with a cherry juice–spiked vinaigrette and tops the salad with lightly smoked scallops. A garnish of cherries cre- ates a brilliant blend of smoky and sweet. For an entrée, Klink sears meaty sea scallops and sets them off with a cherry sauce on a big white plate. Although the caramelization of scallops mirrors the sugars in the cherries, he doesn’t aim for the pairing to be too sweet. So Klink deglazes the pan sauce with red wine and finishes it with butter, rounding out the dish’s fruity tang.


Preparing and Preserving
Cherries destined for the fresh market must be hand-picked to avoid bruising. For that reason, fresh cherries garner top dollar, from $1.40 to $3 per pound wholesale, depending on when during the season they’re bought (the July 4th holiday is a period of high demand and higher prices). Yellow cherries start at an average of $2.45 per pound wholesale but also gain in price depending on availability. To get the best cherries for his buck, Schroeder orders only a few pounds at a time from local farmers when the crop is at its peak. His goal is to receive the cherries in the morning and run out of them by the end of the night. “Quality wanes as the day passes. Serve them fresh,” he advises.


Cherries do not continue to ripen after picking, so suppliers recommend choosing fruit that is glossy, plump, and firm with the green stems attached. For so-called red varieties, look for a deep mahogany color; bright red fruit could indicate under-ripeness and lackluster flavor. For light-colored cherries like Rainiers, look for the characteristic red blush. Completely yellow cherries are probably not ripe. Always avoid hard or small fruit or cherries with soft, dull, or sticky skins. (Incidentally, cherry pits and leaves contain cyanide-producing compounds and are toxic.)

Cherries are best stored in the coldest part of walk-in with good air circulation. Refrigerate them immediately for three or four days at the most, and don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them. To preserve their fresh flavor, rinse and drain cherries well, then freeze them on a sheet pan. Transfer the frozen fruit to bags or containers and store for up to a year. In cooked dishes, Schroeder prefers to peel cherries, suggesting that the texture of the skin gets in the way of enjoying a dish. “Taste one without the skin,” he recommends. “It’s pure, juicy, and very fresh: But a cherry skin doesn’t have much flavor.” To peel, he simply blanches pitted cherries and slips the skins off.


One pound of fresh sweet cherries yields about two cups pitted. To remove the pit with a knife, slit each cherry top to bottom around its entire circumference, pull it apart, and pop out the pit. Mackie prefers to use a cherry pitter because it leaves the integrity and beauty of the cherry intact. She recommends investing in a sturdy one that’s easy to use and buying it before the beginning of cherry season. “It’s impossible to find one after harvest starts,” she observes with a knowing chuckle. “Start the task well-armed,” she advises, with gloves and a big apron. Mackie works inside a deep bowl to contain the inevitable splatter. “It’s a labor of love,” she concedes, “but I’ll do anything for fresh cherries. They’re only here for a fleeting, heavenly moment.”


Ripe and Ready
Sweet cherries were named after the town where they were first cultivated, Cerasus in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Today, this drupe or stone fruit is classified as Prunus avium and belongs to the family Rosaceae (a relative of the plum). There are hundreds of varieties, including the following ones,* which have helped growers stretch the cherry harvest through its short, but oh-so-sweet season.

• Bing: The leading commercial sweet cherry in North America. Fruit is firm, juicy, and a deep mahogany red when ripe. Exceptionally large fruit of finest quality, with an intensely sweet, vibrant flavor. Bing has become the standard to which other varieties are compared; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: mid-June through early August.
• Chelan: The leading early-ripening sweet cherry of the Pacific Northwest. Fruit ripens two weeks ahead of Bing, yet resembles Bing with firm, round, heart-shaped fruit of good size. The best deep mahogany red cherry before Bing, and it’s less susceptible to rain-cracking; 16 to 18 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: early
to mid-June.
• Lapins: A large, highly crack-resistant, mahogany red cherry
that is rapidly replacing the late-season variety Lambert. Lapins matures ten days to two weeks after Bing, exhibiting excellent firmness and flavor; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: early July through mid-August.
• Rainer: A very attractive, exceptionally large yellow cherry with a bright red blush. Rainier has a distinctive and superior appearance among sweet cherry varieties. Delicately flavored with extraordinary sugar levels, the flesh is pure yellow, very firm, and finely textured. A premium niche variety that ripens after Bing; 17 to 23 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: end of June through early August.
• Skeena: Large, very firm, and sweet, Skeena continues to grow in popularity with consumers and growers. Maturing about 16 days after Bing, this dark red to almost black variety has a very dense texture. A great late-season variety; 19 to 20 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: mid-July through early August.
• Sweetheart: A large, bright red cherry maturing one week to ten days after Lapins (three weeks after Bing). Sweetheart has a mild, sweet flavor and outstanding firmness. This heart- shaped cherry handles and ships extremely well; 17 to 19 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: end of July through mid-August.
• Tieton: Extraordinarily large in size, with excellent firmness and a mild, sweet flavor. Tieton is an early-season mahogany red cherry, ripening one week before Bing. The impressive size, attractively glossy fruit, and thick green stems produce a visually stunning fruit for premium displays; 16 to 18 percent fruit sugar. Harvest: middle to end of June.

*Information provided by the Northwest Cherry Growers.

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