This week's look at what's bountiful, new or even mysterious in the produce aisle.
Most of the year, sour cherry lovers have to settle for cans of pie filling, jars of preserves or dried versions. The thin-skinned, juicy fruit is one of the few fruits left that is not available year-round. The season is short, just a few weeks in June and early July. And the time is now. Over the next few weeks, sour cherry trees will be heavy with the bright red fruit.
Don't confuse the sour variety with the sweet. While sweet cherries are best eaten raw, sour cherries usually need to be cooked before eating. Unless you are using presweetened dried sour cherries, plan on cooking them. Unlike the sweet varieties, which lose flavor when cooked, the sour cherry comes into its full flavor after it has been heated. This characteristic makes sour cherries almost always a better choice in any dish calling for cooked cherries.
Fresh sour cherries are a common ingredient in Eastern European and Middle Eastern cooking. But here in the United States, sour cherries are usually made into pie filling or sweetened and dried to be used like raisins. There's nothing wrong with either use, but fresh sour cherries are a treat not to be missed for both the baker and cook.
Buying and Storing: Sour cherries are very perishable, causing them to make only rare appearances in many produce aisles. Farm markets, stands and pick-your-own orchards usually have a plentiful supply while the season lasts. Try to buy fruit as unblemished as possible, but cherries bruise easily so that is no reason to pass them by. Refrigerate immediately and use within a day or two.
Freezing: The easiest way to store the cherries is in the freezer. Pit first, then spread the cherries out on a baking sheet lined with wax paper or baking parchment. Place the sheet in the freezer. When they are frozen, transfer them to plastic freezer bags. If you want the cherries presweetened, before freezing, place them in a freezer container and sprinkle them with sugar. Let sit until a light syrup forms, then freeze in the container.
Cleaning: Rinse, pit and go.
Cooking: Sour cherries make wonderful cobblers, pies, tarts and cakes. They are particularly good made into sweet fillings for crepes. And sour cherries pair well with soft cheese, both in fillings and cheesecakes. Made into a preserve or jam, sour cherries have few equals. Spoon over pancakes or French toast, spread over toast or pound cake, or stir into tea.
Make quick sauces for pork and chicken by cooking sour cherries with a little sugar or honey, adding salt, pepper and a dash of vinegar or wine. Or cook into a savory compote with sweet onions. Persian recipes call for cooking stews of lamb or chicken and rice pilafs with sour cherries; just add a handful.