OBSESSION: SOUR CHERRIES
There were all sorts of things I meant to do this past weekend, but life took a turn. Plump, glossy sour cherries just appeared at the Greenmarket, and I had to seize the moment: They are perhaps the season’s most fleeting treasure, and I’d heard that our region’s cool, cloudy spring had resulted in a small harvest. Time to pounce.
I stood in a line as long, patient, and enthusiastic as what you would find at this week’s National Cherry Festival, in Traverse City, Michigan, eventually staggering home with quarts and quarts of what modern-day marketers euphemistically label tart cherries, and what home bakers of an earlier era sensibly called pie cherries. Unlike meatier sweet varieties, which are meant to be eaten out of hand, they have a complex, puckery intensity and are best for cooking. I bought as many as I could carry because they will last, pitted and frozen, through the rest of the summer and beyond.
Montmorency (above, at top and at right), an old French variety first cultivated in the United States in 1760, tastes as bright as its clear-red hue; the English Morello (above, left) is a bit deeper in color and flavor. Both varieties are wonderful in pies and preserves, but what I also find fabulous is their ability to cut through richness. That’s why they work so well in an eggy clafoutis, and why, when simmered down into a spicy chutney, they strike such a balance with pork, duck, or game.
Pitting sour cherries isn’t a big deal; since they’re softer than sweet cherries, you don’t even need a cherry pitter. Working over a bowl to catch the juices (and wearing an apron to guard against the inevitable, indelible juice spatters), simply use your hands to gently squeeze out the pits through the stem ends. If you intend to use the cherries for preserves or sauces, just spoon them with their juices into heavy-duty ziptop bags and chuck them into the freezer. If you’d rather keep them as whole as possible, spread them on a paper towel–lined rimmed baking sheet and freeze them; when they are frozen solid, bag them and refreeze.
Fresh or thawed frozen sour cherries make a wonderful base for fizzy lemonade, a libation that you will want to enjoy, either with or without vodka, all summer long. The recipe, from Gourmet, was developed by food editor Shelley Wiseman, and it couldn’t be easier; in fact, you don’t have to worry about pitting the cherries if using fresh ones. They get pulverized in the blender, pits and all, then strained. If using fresh cherries, reserve a handful with stems to garnish the glasses.
Sour Cherry Lemonade Cocktail
Adapted from Gourmet, July 2002
Makes 8 tall drinks
1 quart sour cherries, stemmed if fresh or thawed if frozen
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 4 or 5 lemons)
1 cup sugar, or to taste
1½ cups (12 oz) vodka
2 to 3 cups chilled sparkling water or club soda
In a blender, whizz up the cherries at low speed until the skins have turned the liquid red and some of the pits are coarsely chopped. Pour through a sieve into a 2-quart pitcher, pressing firmly on the solids; then discard the solids. Add the lemon juice and sugar and stir with a long-handled wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved. (You can make this mixture up to this point a day ahead of time and refrigerate it.) Fill 8 tall glasses with ice cubes and add 1½ oz vodka to each. Pour ½ cup cherry lemonade into each glass and top off with sparkling water.
There is something irrepressibly cheerful about this cocktail, and about cherries in general. My father was fond of whistling the Depression-era tune “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” whenever he needed a lift, and it’s no surprise that vintage cherry-covered tablecloths and tea towels remain popular. I get my own personal fix from a friend’s watercolor that hangs in our kitchen. It fills me with happiness every time I look at it.