The cherry season is all too short, so make the most of it while you still can. While it's tempting to use cherries for desserts such as a trifle or clafoutis, they are equally suited to breakfast, appetizers and as accents in dinner dishes.
It seems that each year, I'm so wrapped up in the too-brief strawberry season that I fail to pay my respects to the too-brief cherry season. Both fruits reach and surpass their peak disconcertingly quickly, between late spring and mid-summer. This year, my increased attendance at the farmer's market led me to be more inclusive.
My mom has rhapsodized about cherries for years. She always viewed them as a decadent treat, whether eaten from a bowl or folded into the chocolate-cherry bread that she loved to buy at the bakery. Her affection was entwined with nostalgia for the cake her adored grandmother would make for her childhood birthdays: cherry angel food, with white fluffy frosting.
But her praise fell on deaf ears in our house. I ignored the occasional bowl of cherries that my mom would allow herself, content to let my own perception of cherry flavor be informed by childhood experience: Lifesavers, Jell-O and, of course, maraschinos.
Eyeing the cheerful bins of cherries at the market, I decided it was time to bring them into the kitchen and really learn about their flavors. My first purchase of the cherry season — a bag of Bings — went straight into a clafoutis (well, maybe after several went straight into my mouth). Cherries are made for that wonderfully simple French dessert, a batter poured over fruit and baked to custardy perfection. That initial experiment, which soon vanished as it was eaten for both breakfast and dessert, made me want to make up for all those lost cherry seasons.
The next time, I brought home Brooks and Rainier cherries, decided to get them drunk and take them to a party with some ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese. The resulting trifle was a wonderfully messy treat, not even mildly reminiscent of Luden's cherry lozenges.
The only relationship I now see between real, fresh cherries and cherry cough drops is a health claim. I don't know if the lozenges work, but the fruit is packed with healthful compounds that even have been shown to ease arthritis.
The word cherry has roots in the Greek word kerasos, and is also associated with the Turkish city of Cerasus (now Giresun), where the first exports of cherries to Europe originated. Turkey and the United States are now the world's top exporters of cherries.
The types of cherries you'll find at U.S. markets vary depending on where you live. For tart cherries (Morello, Amarelle), which are excellent in pies and usually sold canned or otherwise preserved, Michigan rules. The majority of our sweet cherries (Bing, Rainier) come from Washington, California and Oregon.
Farmers in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live grow a confusingly wide variety of sweet cherries: Brooks, Lambert, Tulare and more. Because the flavor and quality of different types varies depending on the time of year, quality of season and grower, it helps if you can taste before you buy.
Though the obvious temptation is to take advantage of cherries' sweetness for desserts, they make an excellent accent in savory dishes. In her Zuni Café Cookbook, chef Judy Rodgers roasts Bing cherries in olive oil and uses them in a salad. You might even forgo the salad: eating cherries after they have been roasted for five minutes or so in a 400-degree oven might be the best way to enjoy them. Roasting makes them taste like mini cherry pies, the interior of the fruit transformed to a pudding-like consistency that breaks through the "crust" of the skin when you bite it.
I asked Eric Gower, a private chef and author The Breakaway Cook, for more ideas. He suggested combining them with meats such as pork or chicken, and then said something about a recipe he was working on involving edamame and smoked salmon. Edamame and smoked salmon... with cherries? It seemed for a moment that I had hit my personal ceiling of cherry adventuring until I actually tried Gower's recipe, which may be the best thing for smoked salmon since cream cheese.
No sooner have I acquainted myself with the great cherry than the season is nearly over. Seize them while you can.