This summer has been a good one for cherries and our Northwestern orchards and markets are full of plump fruit. I’m especially fond of pale golden Rainier cherries, with their blush of pink or rosy red. Bred in Prosser, Washington and named for the mountain, they’re little known outside of Washington and Oregon, but locals eagerly watch for the first Rainiers to eat by the handful. The quintessential dessert cherry, they’re sweeter than most and are delectable in salads both fruity or green. Though Bing cherries have long been the gold standard, Northwestern growers have been introducing improved varieties such as midnight red Attika, valentine red Sweetheart, and yellow-to-red Early Robin, nearly as sweet as Rainier and as early as Bing.
Sun-warm cherries fresh off the tree always taste amazing, but after a day or two, they lose a little of their luster. I find that cherries retain quality best if soaked in cold water for an hour or so, then drained well. That long, chilly soak improves their texture, keeping them firm and juicy rather than flaccid and mealy. If they won’t be eaten that day, most cherries can be refrigerated for several days and still taste good. Cherries that lack zip will be enhanced by roasting, since caramelizing awakens a wide range of sweet and savory flavors hidden in many a fruit or vegetable).
A Tooth Breaking Treat
One memorable summer long ago, I worked on a farm outside of Aix en Provence, picking cherries and making lavender bundles. I’d never before tasted anything as lovely as warm cherry clafoutis, a sort of Dutch baby made with tart-sweet black cherries. Apparently it’s traditional to use unstoned cherries and all unsuspecting, I cracked a tooth on a pit on the first mouthful. Ever since, I’ve been a dedicated cherry pitter. After experimenting with various ways to pit cherries easily, I learned to cut them in half, rotating the two halves in opposite directions to loosen the pit, then flicking it out with the knife or my fingertip.
Over the years, I’ve tried many other techniques and tools, including balancing a cherry on top of a bottle and punching the pit through with a straw. This is not as easy as some people make it look, though using a metal straw will definitely help. A few years ago I found a plain metal cherry pitter that’s easy to use and is surprisingly fast, though it’s definitely wise to wear an apron. Cherry juice can stain badly, so if it gets on your nice clothing, rinse quickly and spritz with a bacterial degrader such as Bac-Out or Pure Ayre. Such products are remarkably effective at removing stains made by wine, chocolate, blood, tea and other challenging substances. They can also remove (not mask) lingering smells from cigarette smoke to wet dog and recent skunk (that may take a few treatments).
Clafoutis And The Cat
My cat Sophie isn’t usually interested in people food, but she does go for dried seaweed and cantaloupe. She also seemed to find cherry clafoutis to her liking, as who would not? This French invention is much like a puffy breakfast pancake with a soft, custardy filling. Though such substitutions are not traditional, it’s also fabulous made with raspberries or sliced peaches.
1 teaspoon butter
3 cups pitted cherries
3/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
4 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup milk (ok to substitute alternative milks)
2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Rub a pie dish with butter and cover bottom with pitted cherries, set aside. Sift together flour and salt, set aside. Beat eggs until foamy, stir in sugar and beat until sugar dissolves. Stir in milk and vanilla, then add flour mixture and combine well. Pour over cherries and bake for 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 F and bake until puffed and golden (35-40 minutes more). Let stand for 10 minutes (it will collapse) and serve, dusted with powdered sugar. Serves at least one.
Roasted To Perfection
Roasting brings out the latent best in vegetables and can also elevate less-than-fabulous fruit to new heights. Roasted cherries are slightly chewy and tart-sweet, great for nibbling out of hand and wonderful in savory dishes, especially partnered with chicken or salmon or shrimp. They elegantly replace the ubiquitous dried cranberries in chicken salad, and make a lovely side for grilled fish.
Dress them up a bit by tossing while still warm with maple syrup or fresh lime juice, depending on what you want to do with the results. For a savory effect, roll them in curry powder or smoked paprika. For a sweet version, roll in coconut flakes or cinnamon and use them atop ice cream, a party cake, or cherry shortcake.
Basic Caramelized Cherries
2 cups pitted cherries, halved
2 teaspoons rice or safflower oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss cherries with oil then spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cut-side down. Roast until edges are browned (15-20 minutes). Makes about 1 cup.