A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on June 12, 2002.



Cooking Fresh
Such a small window of opportunity to indulge in fresh cherries
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

I think one of the main reasons I began working at the farmers' market was so I could shamelessly indulge my cherry addiction.

The local season is so brief, from mid-May to mid-June, that it's hard for cherry lovers to eat their fill of the fruit. It's possible to buy Pacific Northwest cherries until well after the Fourth of July, but the fruit tends to be overly sweet and soft. And the stresses of travel render fruit shipped in from Chile a pretty dismal lot.

Cherries are simply one of those things that are best enjoyed as soon after harvest as possible.

Unseasonal heavy rains and hail nearly destroyed some California cherry crops this year. Growers in Lodi and Placerville were especially hard hit, as hail pelted their orchards, resulting in split, cracked or holey fruit. Such are the perils of farming.

But now farmers' markets are teeming with cherries of every variety, from Bing, known as the ``queen of cherries,'' to lesser known but delicious Burlats, Tulares, Rainiers, Chelans and Brooks.

Cherries are stonefruit, and are in the same botanical family as peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots.

Cherries have the distinction, however, of being the only stonefruit that doesn't ripen after harvest. Therefore, when choosing cherries, look for plump, shiny fruit with green, pliable stems - a sign of freshness.

In general, the darker the fruit, the sweeter it will be, but some varieties are lighter in color, so ask your produce manager or farmer what to look for.

Cherries are divided into two categories - sweet and sour. Sour cherries, which are primarily used for cooking and canning, are generally grown east of the Rockies, mainly in Michigan and New York.

Sweet cherries, best eaten fresh but also excellent for baking and canning, are mostly grown in California, Utah and the Pacific Northwest. Though cherries need warm days to ripen the fruit, the plants need cool winters to develop bud formation on the branches, which will determine the quantity of the crop.

``Our crop is light this year due to the warm weather,'' explains ``Farmer Al'' Courchesne of Brentwood's Frog Hollow Farm, ``but at least we were spared the hail.''

Courchesne grows a variety of organic cherries, including Chelan, an early season, dark colored, low-acid cherry that is especially good for baking.

``We grow Chelans because they're a great pollinator. We plant one every tenth tree in our Bing and Brooks orchards, and the bees cross-pollinate our trees,'' says Courchesne. Most cherry varieties are not self-pollinating, which means they require insects to do the job.

Courchesne's favorite variety, however, is the ubiquitous Bing. ``They're incredible. They have the highest sugar content of any variety, 28 percent to 29 percent brix (the measure of sugar content in fruit), but with enough acid to balance the flavor, and a good, crunchy texture.''

Michael Salinas, farm manager of Kennedy Farms in Salida, sells more unusual cherry varieties such as Chinook, ``sweet as a Bing but less crispy,'' Double Delight, ``a large, tart, eating cherry,'' and his favorite, Utah Giant, that is ``as fruity as a Bing, but more intense. I enjoy them fresh, but they also make an excellent jam.''

Kennedy Farms also grows Rainiers, which are a white cherry like Royal Ann, although the color is actually more golden with a crimson blush. White cherries tend to be sweeter, with low acid, making them good for out-of-hand eating.

Cherries also make a refreshing juice or cider. John Smit of Linden's Smit Ranch sells a cherry-apple juice blend made from his Burlat, Rainier, Bing and Chelan cherries.

Cherries should be stored in the refrigerator, unlike other stonefruit which get mealy if refrigerated because the fruit sugars convert to starch.

If you have more patience than I do and want to cook cherries rather than just eat them fresh by the handful, a hand-held cherry pitter is a good investment.

The pits, which have a faint bitter almond flavor, make a nice addition to jams, canned fruit, or liqueurs and aperitifs. Just pit the cherries and steep the fruit with the pits when making jams or canned cherries.

Besides being perfect in pies, crisps, cobblers, tarts and muffins, cooked cherries also make a rich, savory accompaniment to duck, venison or pork. Try making a compote with a little Port or substantial red wine such as Zinfandel or Merlot added to it.

You can also pickle cherries in white wine vinegar, sugar and some spices such as cloves or star anise. Pickled cherries are wonderful served with meat, especially ham.

Try fresh cherries in a salad, pairing them with a fresh, tangy chevre or blue-veined cheese such as Cambazola.

As for maraschinos, you might want to think twice before you start snacking out of the bartender's garnish tray. Although maraschino liqueur is made from a small, wild cherry called Damasca, or Marasca, from the Dalmatian region of Croatia, maraschino cherries are cherries that have been bleached, dyed and steeped in a flavored sugar syrup. Ick.

Maraschinos aside, cherry season is fleeting so stock up now. When you're spreading that sweetly luscious jam on your toast in the middle of January, you'll be glad you did.

[QC] Cherries are available from the following growers: Kennedy Farms at the Berkeley farmers' market; Smit Ranch at the Berkeley and Ferry Plaza farmers' markets; Frog Hollow Farm at the Berkeley, Ferry Plaza, Danville and Palo Alto farmers' markets; Phillips Farm at the Berkeley, Orinda and Pleasant Hill farmers' markets; and Kashiwase Farms at the Berkeley, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Jack London Square farmers' markets.

There are a couple of corrections from the Redwood Hill Farm column that ran on May 29. The two categories cheese falls into are lactic curd and rennet curd, not cured. And Redwood Hill's feta and Camellia cheeses are rennet curd cheeses, not lactic as mentioned in the story. We regret the error.

CHERRY CLAFOUTI

1 pound fresh cherries, pitted.

1 cup half-and-half

2 eggs 1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon flour

1/2 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons kirsch or brandy

optional Powdered sugar for garnish

1 cup creme fraiche Edible flowers such as Johnny jump-ups, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter large baking dish or six 4-ounce ramekins, and arrange fruit on bottom, leaving space between the cherries.

Split vanilla bean in half and using a paring knife, scrape contents into food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and process just until smooth. Pour batter into prepared baking dish (if using individual ramekins, fill only 3/4 of the way) and bake 30-35 minutes or until top is golden. Allow to cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and an edible flower for garnish. Serves 4-6.

Per Serving: 311 Calories; 18g Fat; 6g Protein; 31g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 113mg Cholesterol; 54mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1/2 Grain; 1/2 Lean Meat; 1 Fruit; 1/2 Non-Fat Milk; 3 1/2 Fat; 1/2 Other Carbohydrates.

E-mail Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org




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Last modified: March 26, 2002