If strawberry season came and went as something of a surprise to you, the natural world has but one message for you: WAKE UP. The Year in Fruit is an annual parade that arrives in town, marches through, and then is gone until next spring. Each fruit is a group that marches together, with a clear color scheme that, upon closer inspection, yields a fantastic variety of shapes, sizes and complexions.
As the strawberries taper off, spring raspberries arrive—but just a few—and then cherries surge by, all at once, dark red and sunny yellow, long-stemmed and short-stemmed and sour and sweet and…gone. But oh, here comes hope in the shape of a peach, smallish and light yellow, firm and fuzzy, followed by peachy clingstones, juicy and fragrant, and then the brassy, buxom freestones, so sweet that they gush when you look at them.
Amid the cherries, a purple plum might appear, waving and vying for your attention; amid the peaches, some blackberries and blueberries beckon. Tender figs might march with the apples, stately and confident that they reign supreme in Central Virginia, and the shriveled, frost-bitten persimmons conclude the procession and close the fruit year.
Because fruit is a plant’s means of reproducing, the timing of harvest cannot easily be manipulated by humans; somehow, cherries know to turn bright red just when adult and adolescent birds are on the wing, looking for food, and persimmons finally fall from the tree when deer are mating and moving around, scanning for food and spreading the seeds in their droppings.
Making cherries last
According to the statewide website Buy Local, Virginia (www.buylocalvirginia.org), there are at least 12 U-Pick cherry orchards in Virginia, and an untold number of backyard and municipal specimens that might yield delicious fruit. Either way, the trick is to take advantage of cherry season the moment it arrives, and to do everything in your power to preserve it for the rest of the year.
First step is to go out and get some fruit, and to eat as much as you possibly can (and then give some to your friends and neighbors). In general, don’t wash fruit before you store it—wash it before you eat it (otherwise you’re encouraging microbial growth). Store fresh cherries in the refrigerator in glass or plastic containers with the lids slightly ajar, or covered with a clean, dry kitchen towel. For fun, soak some clean, pitted cherries in a mild wine vinegar or vinaigrette to make a fun, fruity salad dressing. Drop a few in a bottle of brandy, or vodka, or even Amaretto and invent a summertime, cherry-red cocktail.
When you’ve had your fill of fresh cherries, go out and get more fruit—it’s time to think of the future. Of course there’s jam and jelly, and one can even make pickled cherries; consider perfecting your fresh sour cherry pie recipe, and then prepare some extra batches of filling to store in the freezer (hey, you can even freeze pie crust, and you’ll be glad you did).
With any miscellaneous leftover cherries, cook them lightly, then separate the fruit from the juice: Freeze the fruit to use in autumn when preparing a sauce for duck, venison, or pork; use the juice to make salad dressing, or to drizzle on ice cream or squirt into a spritzer.
You can freeze cherries and other smallish fruit like berries by spreading them out on a cookie sheet (but check that it fits in your freezer before you begin!). The fruit will be frozen solid in a matter of hours, so dump it into a labeled freezer bag and roll out another batch. Dehydrated cherries would make a great addition to scones and cookies, and can also be rehydrated in oatmeal and cereal.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.
A cherry-flavored menu
Easy: Cherry Dark and Stormy. Soak cherries in ginger beer for a few hours; drizzle the infusion over dark rum and ice. Don’t forget to impale cherries on sword-stirrers if you can!
Advanced: Cherry Bounce. Recipes abound; the best ones will include some additional fermentation of the cherries and sugar that will result in the bubbles that put “bounce” in the name, but will also take six to 12 weeks to complete. Maybe for Labor Day?
Easy: Cheese and olive plate, fea-turing aged and fresh goat cheese, cherries, almonds and mild olives.
Easy: Spinach and mixed leaf lettuces with fresh chevre, hazelnuts and pitted cherries in tarragon vinaigrette.
Easy: Barbecue-glazed broiled chicken. Add reduced cherry juice to a spicy BBQ sauce for a deep red flavor and a sweet glaze.
Easy: Couscous. Include dried cherries in the couscous cooking liquid, then fluff with olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon juice.
Advanced: Seared saddle of rabbit with cherry sauce.
Easy: Good ol’ American cherry pie. Don’t forget the lattice top (it’s easier than it looks!).
Advanced: Cherries Jubilee. A dessert of sweet, dark red cherries, sugar and kirsch that is set briefly alight, then spooned over ice cream.
Kirsch/kirschwasser (liquor made from cherry juice and cherry pits, distilled into a clear brandy), served chilled (on a warm night) or warmed slightly in the hands (on a cool night, with a fire).