A cherry jubilee: your pick of cherry dishes

Versatility: There's an orchard of uses for the tart and pleasing fruit.

July 05, 2000|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

It was 1931. The Depression. What this country needed was a chin-up anthem to cheer it. On cue, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson wrote a doozy for the Broadway show "George White's Scandals." And it was trumpeted on stage by none other than Ethel Merman.

Works for me. Life and a bowl of cherries do have common bonds, you know. Both are bright and beautiful, are full of promise, but suffer bruises, and can go to rot if not handled carefully. Neither lasts long enough.

French colonists, in their wisdom, stuffed their pockets with cherry pits before they left Normandy for America. They planted them on the shores of the Great Lakes early in the 17th century. The descendants of those trees still thrive today, mostly around Lake Michigan where the climate is ideal - not too warm, not too cold.

Michigan produces about 75 percent of the country's cherries during a short season that lasts about four weeks, usually all of July. Because they're more perishable than their sweet cherry cousins, about 65 percent of the tart cherry commercial crop is processed. They're dried, frozen, canned or cooked immediately into jams, jellies, relishes and, to some degree, alcoholic spirits such as maraschino and kirsch.

Sour cherries might seem like a rarity because they are seen at farm stands for so short a time. Western Pennsylvania orchards produce a small crop with approximately the same growing season as in Michigan, but not all farmers' markets will have them.

Most of the local cherries produced face the lucky prospect of being dispatched by industrious cooks into strudels, pies and cobblers. Small, soft and delicate as they are, tart cherries aren't meant to be eaten out of hand. Their pucker power is as legendary as a lemon's. But when cooked and balanced with sugar, spices and other things nice, their true character shines through. Their assertive flavor makes tart cherries a natural for baking and for sauces to complement roasts and birds. Jams and chutneys are perfect partners, too, with their high proportion of sweet and savory ingredients.

But before they are used, cherries need to be pitted. One way is to use a cherry pitter, a great little gadget. But most of us aren't so farsighted as to have bought one, much less being able to find it in the drawer when it's time to use it.

The most common way to pit cherries is to grasp the cherry between thumbs and forefingers of both hands and split the fruit, using a thumbnail to poke out the seed. After seeding a quart of cherries this way, your sore thumbs will wish you'd tried one of these other methods:

Some folks recommend yanking out the seed with needle-nosed pliers.

Others recommend pushing a drinking straw through the bottom of the cherry, forcing the pit up and out the top.

Still another way is to push the cherries firmly down onto the pointed, jagged end of a pastry bag tip. The trick here is to take care not to cut your fingers on the points as they pierce the fruit. In any case, work over a bowl to catch the cherry juices.

Because the pit has an almond-like flavor, most dessert recipes will be enhanced by a drop or two of almond extract to echo the natural taste. A layer of almond paste lining a tart shell would be one delicious way to do that.

To freeze cherries, pit them and freeze in single layers on trays. When the cherries are marble-hard, double-bag them in heavy, resealable, plastic food bags and store them in the coldest part of the freezer. They should be used within a year.

If you like to have cherries on hand year-round, but you don't want to do the work, you can have frozen, pitted, tart cherries shipped overnight to you boxed in dry ice. But it won't be cheap. Orchards Harvest in Traverse City, Mich., which bills itself as the Cherry Capital of the World, sells a 20-ounce bag of frozen, pitted cherries, enough for a pie, for about $4.25. For five bags, shipping and handling to your city (product, ice, carton and shipping) would run about $58. Place your order at 800-286-7209.

Here are some delicious treats using tart cherries.

Sour Cherry Pie

Makes 1

1 quart tart cherries (thawed, if frozen), pitted

1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling top

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons rum, optional pastry for 1 double-crust pie (Make your own pie dough or use one from the refrigerator case at the supermarket.)

butter

milk

Combine cherries, sugars, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, cornstarch and rum, if using, in saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Boil until thickened, about 45 seconds more. Transfer mixture to bowl and let cool.

Roll out bottom pie crust. Ease into pan, or use store-bought crust. Spoon in filling. Dot with a little butter. Add top crust. Seal and cut vents in top. Brush crust with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar.

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