Vegetables steal a good deal of thunder in spring and summer (as soon as we’re done with ramps, here comes the sweet corn!), but there’s plenty of fruit to look forward to as well. And at the top of that list are ruby-colored, long-stemmed Cherries, which are generally available from late May until early August, but are truly at their peak in June and July.
Closely related to other, one-seeded stone fruits such as plums, peaches and nectarines, there are two primary types of cherries; both sweet and sour (also commonly referred to as tart). Sweet cherry varieties include the plump, dark red-to-black Bing, which are firm but juicy and super sugary when properly ripened; the bright, heart-shaped, late-blooming Lambert, whose rich, meaty flesh make them a favorite for eating fresh as well as for cooking; the golden-pink Royal Ann, which are generally used to make maraschino cherries, and Rainier cherries, also with a golden-pink blush and yellow or white flesh, which have a very delicate flavor, and bruise incredibly easily.
As for small, round Sour Cherries, Montmorency are the most common variety, with bright red skin and beige insides, and Morellos are popular in Europe; dark red and extremely tart, their blood-hued juice is often used for making liqueurs. They’re exceedingly difficult to find fresh, however; as when sour cherries are at their peak, most of them are picked and pitted, then immediately frozen, canned, or dried.
Needless to say, when you think of cherries, you generally think of Pie, which is why fruit-filled, lattice-topped pastries are currently gracing the menus of New York’s top pie shops. And that includes Bubby’s and their beloved Sour Cherry Pie, flavored with almond and lemon, and cradled in extra-flaky crusts. Of course, cherries are the ultimate addition to desserts of all sorts, from the domed Merveilleux at Aux Merveilleux de Fred — featuring Belgian chocolate and cherry whipped cream, and coated with crystallized cherry meringue — to the composed cherry treat at Kat & Theo, comprised of fresh cherries, cherry sorbet, and poppyseed crumble, spiked with Thai long peppercorn.
Cherries are also lovingly showcased during brunch, at spots like Locanda Verde (think Hazelnut-Crusted French Toast, strewn with sour cherries and mint), not to mention available as an aperitif; Jean-Georges offers housemade Cherry-Yuzu juice served straight for teetotalers, as well as incorporated in an Old Fashioned-inspired cocktail, mixed with bitters and Old Overholt rye. Oh, and don’t rule cherries out for savory preparations; Le Bernardin is currently serving crispy Rohan Duck Breast as a main course, paired with snow peas and sour cherry sauce.
So now that cherries have finally begun to show up at farmers markets, what, precisely, should you look for? Remember that cherries are harvested when ripe; they do not ripen significantly off the tree. When buying sweet cherries, make sure they are large, plump, smooth and dark colored for their variety (golden cherries, such as Royal Anns, are meant to be pale) and have firm stems. The darker the cherry, the sweeter its flavor. Avoid any that are pale-colored (again, for their variety) and rock hard, which indicates immature fruit, or those that are wet, sticky, bruised, excessively soft or have shriveled stems; all are signs of age. Cherries with the stems attached are desirable; once the stem is removed, the cherries spoil more rapidly. If you possibly can, taste cherries before you buy them. Sweetness varies farm to farm (tree to tree, really) and week to week. If sour cherries are available, buy them following the same guidelines as for sweet cherries. Most taste too tart for pleasant eating out of hand, but they are good when sweetened for pies or preserves and other baking or cooking uses.
The most important thing to remember is that cherries are supremely delicate, so only buy as many as you plan to eat in the next few days. Keep them separated from strong-smelling foods, as cherries can absorb odors, and for best results, store them refrigerated in a plastic bag with holes in it, and don’t wash your cherries until you’re ready to use them. If using fresh cherries in pies or other baked dishes, pit the fruit with a cherry pitter or small, sharp knife. If the recipe calls for canned sour cherries and you wish to use fresh sweet cherries, reduce the amount of sugar and add a little lemon juice to taste. This works very well for cherry pie, cherry sauce for ice cream or cherry topping for cheesecake.
So besides the obvious sweets, what else can you use cherries for? We love tossing them in chicken salad, for curried chicken lettuce wraps, and they’re terrific when macerated and served in sangria, or muddled with mint, for a seasonal mojito. Cherries can and should be a go-to during breakfast, boiled down into jam or folded into muffins, pancakes or scones, or poked into focaccia dough and sprinkled with sea salt, for an elegant, semi-savory bread. They’re also an ideal accompaniment to proteins, whether simmered into a sauce or a spicy compote, and spooned over pork, duck, venison, chicken or fish.
They say that life is just a bowl of cherries… and now that it’s their peak season, ours is feeling especially full.
120 Hudson St., btwn. Franklin & Moore Sts.
Aux Merveilleux de Fred
37 8th Ave., btwn. Jane & West 4th Sts.
Kat & Theo
5 W 21st St., btwn. Avenue Of The Americas & 5th Ave
377 Greenwich St., btwn. Moore & Franklin Sts.
1 Central Park West
155 W 51st St.