Cherry lips; cherry on top; popped her cherry; life is like a bowl of cherries; she’s my cherry pie; that’s a cherry rig; bite of the cherry; cherry-picked…
From her delicate silken blossoms to her succulent ruby red berries, the cherry tree has been a symbol of magic and myth for thousands of years.
In Japan, the cherry or “sakura” tree represents good fortune, new beginnings, and revival. Folklore says that when the sakura spirit releases their intoxicating fragrance in the springtime, it is to be celebrated as it represents beauty and innocent pleasures. However, because it only lasts a short time, it teaches us to appreciate the short time we have to share with our loved ones.
In ancient mythology cherries contained the elixir which gave the gods their immortality. It was believed the magical Phoenix slept on a bed of cherry blossoms to give it everlasting life. Buddha was said to have been born under a holy cherry tree. The cherry tree represents fertility and femininity.
Cherries originated in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in Asia minor around 70BC. The English word “cherry” derives from Old Northern French cherise, referring to an ancient Greek region, Kerasous near Giresun, Turkey. Cherries were first thought to have been exported to Europe from this region, and it continues to be the top cherry producing region of the world. Romans introduced them to the Brittish Isles and then in the 1600s, colonists brought them to Brooklyn, NY (then called New Netherland) when the region was under Dutch sovereignty.
Today there are more than 1,000 cultivars of both sweet and sour cherries, but only about 20 varieties are used in commercial production. It is the fruit of plants of the genus Prunus, and is a fleshy drupe (stone fruit). Cherry trees are temperate-latitude trees that require a certain number of chilling hours in order to break dormancy, bloom, and make fruit. Because of this cold-weather requirement, no members of the genus Prunus can grow in tropical climates.
In comparing the two, sour cherries contain 20 times more vitamin A, and antioxidant levels are 5 times higher than sweet cherries. Sour cherry juice has been proven to reduce muscle pain, damage, and inflammation. It also increases muscle strength. Sour cherries are naturally high in melatonin—a hormone responsible for sleepiness. They also contain a good amount of tryptophan and anthocyanins, which improve sleep quality and duration. Sour cherry juice also reduces uric acid, which is a chemical that triggers gout, thus reducing inflammation and arthritis pain. Patients with degenerative brain disorders like Parkinsons and Alzheimers experienced improvements in verbal fluency and short- and long-term memory when consuming 16 ounces a day. It is also rich in vitamins and minerals that support the immune system and fight against cancer.
Each summer, as June comes to an end, I start to become giddy with anticipation. Black sour cherries are my weakness. I adore fat, juicy, sweet cherries that are for sale at every grocery store throughout June and July, but it is the illusive sour that has me enraptured. They ripen shortly after the sweets in this area and there are two main varieties available—Montmorency, which is bright red on the outside but has yellow flesh on the inside; and Morello, the dark red queen of cherries. Both varieties of sour cherries are thin skinned and oozing with juices so they do not travel well. Once picked, they must be processed within 24 hours or they turn to mush. Their season is fleeting, just a week or two, and they are highly perishable so you are not likely to find them fresh in supermarkets. Their bright, acidic taste makes them great for jams, cakes, pies, cocktails, and even savory dishes.
Luckily New York is one of the states that grows both sour and sweet cherries successfully. Pick Your Own is available throughout the Hudson Valley. When they are finally ready, drop everything you are doing and plan to spend a few lovely hours surrounded by people of all cultures united by one goal—to feel like a kid again and pick cherries! Expect to get sticky, and wear dark colored clothing because you are guaranteed to stain anything that comes into contact with the fruits. Bring a cooler along to carry your booty home safely, and clear your calendar for the next few hours to give you time to prepare these beauties for freezing or processing.
What to do with your treasures:
Cherry Clafoutis (kla-foo-Tee)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
For the batter:
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
2 Tbs granulated white sugar
3/4 cup milk (cow or other)
1 Tbs melted unsalted butter
1/2 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup fresh cherries (traditionally sweet are used, but I prefer the tart)
1 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs granulated sugar
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, salt, eggs, sugar, milk, butter & vanilla. Whisk until smooth and set aside.
In a 9” cast iron or heavy ovenproof skillet, melt butter over medium heat being sure to coat all sides of the pan. Add cherries and sprinkle with sugar, then mix. Gently cook until cherries just begin to release their juices (about 2 minutes). Pour the batter over the cherries and bake at 425 for 18-20 minutes. Do not open the oven while baking or it will collapse. Serve immediately with a dusting of powdered sugar and a dollop of plain yogurt.
Sour Cherry Juice
I use this cold extraction method with a lot of fruits. I find it retains the color and freshness of the flavor.
Freeze 2-4 pounds of unpitted, sour Morello cherries until they are solid.
Remove from the freezer and let defrost in a non-reactive colander (plastic or stainless steel) placed over a large bowl. Cover with a tea towel to keep the fruit flies out, and let it slowly defrost. Once the cherries are completely soft, gently press with a potato masher to extract all the glorious, red juices. Be very careful because this juice will stain all light surfaces and fabrics. Wear an apron to protect your clothing.
Pour the juice directly into a pitcher, or if you want it to be clear, pour through a damp jelly bag or fine mesh cheesecloth. From this point you can lightly sweeten (or heavily, depending on your taste) with the sweetener of your choice—agave syrup or white sugar are good since they don’t change the flavor of the juice. Store in quart-size Mason jars in your refrigerator and dilute with fresh water if the flavor is too intense. Use within the week. It is delicious added to seltzer, champagne, or even as a base for a margarita. The juice freezes well and so it can be enjoyed all year.
Easy Sour Cherry Jam
6 cups pitted, roughly chopped sour cherries (any variety will do)
2-3 cups sugar, depending on your level of taste
In a heavy bottom pot, mix cherries and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a light boil and cook for about 20 minutes. The mixture will begin to thicken. You can choose to cook it longer to make a firmer jam, or leave it loose to use as a syrup. Ladle into sterilized Mason jars and process with a hot water bath, or store in the freezer. It is excellent added to plain yogurt, vanilla ice cream, poured over soft cheese, added to a vinaigrette, smeared on a sandwich, or just eaten on toast.
Pack a Mason jar with sour cherries (no need to pit them first), fill with alcohol of your choice—Vodka, borbon, whiskey, white rum, tequila. Place in refrigerator and let sit for at least 24 hours. Add to cocktails or just enjoy straight.
Globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. More than half the fresh fruits and one third of the vegetables in our supermarkets are imported from other countries. But anyone with taste-buds knows that just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it tastes good.
We are incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northeast. The soil in the Rondout Valley is called unadilla silt loam. It is a mineral rich, glacially deposited topsoil ideal for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains. Our region’s farms produce a wide variety of seasonal crops which are bursting with flavor and personality. Here is our Autumnal locavore’s dilemma.
We have so many varieties to choose from; butternut or hubbard? – or should we try kabocha, acorn, buttercup, golden nugget, delicata, pink banana, neck pumpkin, turk’s cap, Long Island cheese, cushaw, cocozelle, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and many, many other squash and pumpkin —which are technically in the same family “cucurbitaceae” varieties—in various colors, shapes and sizes. What does this all mean?
The name “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American Indian word “askutasquash”. Originally believed to have been from Central America or Mexico, humans have used their hard shells as containers for utensils and have eaten the flesh, flowers, and young shoots raw or cooked for almost 10,000 years. Learning from the Native Americans, European settlers adopted squash as a staple in North America. They baked the squash and then cut and mixed it with animal fat, maple syrup or honey.
Saving Seeds and Pollination
The reason we have so many varieties is because people learned to save seeds from squash with the unique qualities they preferred. Many different varieties developed all over the world. Squash are pollinated by insects, so in order to avoid unwanted hybrids, you must make sure that the plant was pollinated by another member of the same variety. The first generation of fruit gets its characteristics from the mother plant, so you will indeed enjoy the delicata you had planted. But say your delicata squash was pollinated by a sugar pie pumpkin, the genes within the seeds will be altered and the following year, when you grow that seed, you will get a pumpcata, or is it a delikin? You need at least ¼ mile between squash varieties to avoid Frankensquash (unless you like that sort of experiment, who knows? You may come up with a fabulous cross that you can name after yourself … Pink Jenana d’ Etamps perhaps?).
Did you know the seeds are edible of all squash and pumpkins? The seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as iron, protein and fiber. So don’t compost them with the stringy guts… Here is what to do with them.
2 cups raw, rinsed and dried squash or pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
After cutting open the squash, scoop out the “guts”. Pick the seeds out of the stringy fiber and toss them into a colander. Rinse under cold water, then pat dry with a tea towel. Spread the seeds into a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Mix it around until all the seeds are coated. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally until they are lightly golden. Allow to cool before snacking. Pumpkin seeds are best soon after roasting.
Curried Coconut Squash Soup
1 medium kabocha squash ( about 3 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 can coconut milk
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt (more or less according to taste)
Hopefully the squash you just harvested the seeds from is a kabocha because curried, coconut squash soup is on the menu tonight and the kabocha, with its thick, solid, waxy, orange flesh that is ideal for soup. Take the two sides of your squash, rub with olive oil and place on a baking tray inside a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (or until completely soft).
Saute the onions, celery & garlic in olive oil in a heavy bottom, 8 quart soup kettle until golden brown. Sprinkle the spices into the kettle and saute until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). Slowly add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
Once the squash is soft, place the roasted flesh into the pot with the vegetables (I leave the skin on the squash for added vitamins & fiber, but you can remove it if you prefer). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and partially cover for 8-10 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and add the coconut milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add salt & pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro & a squeeze of lime juice.
Maple Cinnamon Roasted Neck Pumpkin*
8 cups cubed Neck Pumpkin (*butternut squash can be used as replacement if you can’t locate this graceful giant at your local farmers market. This squash is ideal because it is tender and juicy, yet holds its shape), about 3 lbs of peeled cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne
Preheat oven to 425
Line a baking 2 baking trays with aluminum foil (or use a silpat silicone liner so when the sugars caramelize it won’t be too hard to clean) Spread out the cubes evenly on the trays.
Drizzle the squash with 1 tbsp olive oil and maple syrup per sheet.
Sprinkle each sheet evenly with ¼ tsp cinnamon, salt & pinch of cayenne
Toss the squash on the sheets with clean hands to coat evenly
Place the pans in the preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, switching racks halfway and cooking until all the squash is tender. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and turn on the broiler. Take turns placing each sheet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize (be careful it does not burn! The sugars cause it to brown very fast).
This dish is delicious served warm or cold. As a side , or tossed onto a bed of raw spinach and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
No matter what you call it – squash or pumpkin, our valley is flush with these disparate cucurbits this month. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern or create a delicious meal, get out there and support our local farmers buy purchasing from your local farmstand.