In the American South, we have plenty of peaches, strawberries, blueberries and figs, often in our own backyard.
Cherries, not so much.
But that does not -- should not -- stop us from loving the sweet little fruit that appears in stores and markets every summer. Ripe for popping, cherries are a delicious, healthy snack loaded with all kinds of vitamins, nutrients and things that are good for us.
To be perfectly honest, I think cherries are the bomb.
Last summer, I went from eating cherries out of hand to cooking with them, and even making drinks out of them. I stirred sweet Bing cherries into cobblers (with or without peaches and other fruit). I crushed them in a glass, added bourbon, a generous glug or two of ginger ale and a few drops of orange bitters, creating a bright red summer sipper that accentuated the sweetness of the cherries and the smoky allure of the whiskey.
Then, on a trip to Door County, Wisconsin, I tasted my first fresh tart cherry, and my world changed.
Door County, a picturesque peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, is known for its sour Montmorency cherries: ruby-red gems that zing with a haunting complexity redolent of wine and spice. So lovely and so petite, so delicate in their demeanor, they make the sweet cherries we import from Washington, California and Oregon seem downright common.
It was at Seaquist Orchards just outside Sister Bay, Wisconsin, that I sampled my first Montmorency and met up with cherry baron Dale Seaquist, who gave me a tour of his farm and told me about the lady visitor who once inquired: “When do these cherries go ‘bing’?” (Cymbal crash.)
A strapping, garrulous Wisconsinite, Seaquist, who had a vintage cherry-red Studebaker in the back of his warehouse with a “do not touch” sign on the window and wore a red-and-white-check shirt, is the best mouthpiece the Door County cherry industry could hope for.
It only makes sense that most cherry pies are made from tart cherries, Seaquist said, because they are smaller. Ergo: You can pack more cherries into the pastry and every bite. And who doesn’t want more cherries?
At Seaquist Orchards’ market, I discovered fresh-baked cherry pies and house-made cherry fudge, cherry jam and cherry salsa, cherry juice and cherry cider, dried cherries, frozen cherries, fresh cherries. And I developed a serious case of cherry fever.
At Parador, a tapas restaurant in the town of Egg Harbor, I had charcuterie paired with Door County cherry jam. At 109-year-old Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim, I inhaled a vanilla ice cream sundae loaded with hot fudge sauce, Door County cherries, whipped cream and pecans. At what may be America’s cutest pie shop, Sweetie Pies in Fish Creek, I chatted with owner Cathy Mazurek and wolfed down a slice of her peach-and-cherry pie and got some cherry bars to go.
Back in Sister Bay, at Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar & Grill, I slurped a wonderfully sweet-tart Door County cherry margarita. And at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, I had what “Good Morning America” viewers voted the best breakfast in the nation back in 2010. That would be the inn’s Cherry-Stuffed French Toast: slices of egg bread with pockets of Wisconsin cream cheese and Door County cherries, topped with real maple syrup. Gracious goodness, that stuff is good.
If you ever get to Door County, you won’t forget those cherries.
Unfortunately, fresh tart cherries of any kind are not to be found in some cities, such as Atlanta, though you can find sour cherries in canned pie filling and dried.
As Seaquist told me, these juicy little Midwestern Montmorencys and other tart varieties are a challenge to ship. However, you may order dried Montmorencys from any number of sources, and they are great for cookies, bars, granola, etc. They are good in salads (how about some cherry-pecan salad?) and may be chopped and added to salsas, relishes and chutneys.
I had terrific luck with the dried and frozen Montmorencys I ordered from Friske Orchards in the neighboring state of Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 state for tart cherries. As research for this story, I made an amazing meat loaf studded with Montmorencys and slathered with a ketchup-y cherry sauce. I’m saving the rest for cherry pies and White Gull’s killer French toast.
Here’s the thing about cooking with cherries. They are versatile. So if you can’t find sour, most sweet varieties work just fine, though you might add a little lemon juice or zest to impart tartness. After heating up the kitchen to make cherry baked goods, I’ve decided that cold cherry treats -- like ice creams, smoothies, cocktails and salsa -- are the way to go in this hot summer season.
1 1/2 cups stemmed, pitted and chopped cherries (may use sweet or tart)
1/3 cup chopped onion (may use white, yellow or red)
Zest of one small lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeno pepper, seeds and stem removed (may use other chiles of choice, such as Serrano or Thai)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons chopped sweet basil (may use Thai basil)
Makes about 2 cups.
Place the cherries, onion, lemon zest and juice, jalapeno, Worcestershire sauce and salt in a small bowl and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. (If using tart cherries, you may want to add a bit of sugar; start with 1 teaspoon, then more as needed.)
Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving. Just before serving, stir in chopped basil.
The salsa keeps well in the refrigerator, and would be delicious with grilled meats, chicken or as a stand-in for cranberries with turkey.
Cherry and Apricot Clafoutis
3/4 pound sweet cherries, stemmed and pitted (see note)
4 apricots, pitted and halved (see note)
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 tablespoon kirsch or rum (optional)
Butter, for greasing pan
1 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting (optional)
Serves six to eight.
Place cherries and apricots in a medium bowl and top with sugar and kirsch or rum (if using). Toss well to coat and allow to sit for 30 minutes. Grease a 9 1/2-inch or 10-inch tart pan or glass pie plate with butter.
Strain the fruit over a bowl, reserving liquid, and arrange the fruit in the baking dish.
Place the reserved fruit syrup, milk, remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and flour in the bowl of a blender. Mix at highest speed for 1 minute; then pour in the baking dish. (If you don’t have a blender, beat the milk, eggs and vanilla extract until just mixed; add flour and mix until smooth and frothy.)
Bake in a 350-degree oven until the clafoutis is firmly set at the center and nicely browned, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. (A toothpick or knife inserted at the center should come out clean).
The clafoutis will puff up, then settle as it cools. Allow to cool briefly, about 15 minutes. Slice into wedges and serve. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar if desired.
Note: To pit cherries, poke the stem end with a wooden chopstick, and the pit should pop out.
Note: If you don’t want to use apricots, try peaches. Or omit altogether and use a full pound of cherries.
Cherry-Bourbon Ice Cream
FOR THE CHERRY-BOURBON SAUCE:
1 1/2 cups halved pitted cherries
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
FOR THE VANILLA ICE CREAM:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
A pinch of kosher salt
1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
5 large egg yolks
Makes about 1 quart.
To make the sauce: Place pitted cherries, sugar, and 1 tablespoon water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until syrupy, 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes. Stir in bourbon. Cover and chill until to ready to make ice cream.
To make the ice cream: Combine heavy cream, whole milk,1/4 cup granulated sugar and a pinch of kosher salt in a medium saucepan. Split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape in seeds; add pod (or use vanilla extract). Bring mixture just to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. If using vanilla bean, cover; let sit 30 minutes.
Whisk 5 large egg yolks and remaining1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl until pale, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in 1/2 cup warm cream mixture. Whisk yolk mixture into remaining cream mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat a wooden spoon, 2-3 minutes. Strain custard into a medium bowl set over a bowl of ice water. Place vanilla bean back in the custard. Let cool, stirring occasionally. Chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
When ready to make the ice cream, fish the vanilla bean out of the custard and discard. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to an airtight container, and fold in cherry-bourbon sauce. Cover and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours and up to 1 week.