Cherries are a signature summer fruit

June 29, 2018

Now that cherries have become a popular sight at the farmers markets and grocery stores, stories about cherries are appearing on a number of internet sites, online blogs and print magazines. But instead of reports about the juicy red fruit, we're hearing about fashion trends. Cosmopolitan reports a design throwback from the '90s has returned to earrings, lingerie, tops and T-shirts offered by J. Crew.

Champion has introduced a matching cherry-forward sweater, shorts and bucket-hat combination. Every kind of footwear from sandals and sneakers to casual flats is available with a cherry motif. Forever 21 has swimsuits and necklaces. And you can find cellphone cases, throw pillows and area rugs from Urban Outfitters.

Now that you're ready for your next trip to the shopping mall to add cherries to your wardrobe, let's get back to the signature summer fruit. Tomorrow, June 30, marks the opening of the annual Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich. Although we typically think of sweetness when we think of the cherries we eat out of hand, Michigan is the largest producer of sour or tart cherries, which are the best choice for pies, dried cherries and cherry juice.

Sweet cherries include several varieties; most common is the firm, dark-red Bing cherry, and Rainier cherries have sweet yellow flesh and pink-tinged skin. The Montmorency cherry is the most popular sour cherry, with a tender skin and bright-red color. These are rarely available to buy fresh, so be sure to try them if you see them for sale. The Michigan festival organizers promise a generous supply.

How can you tell if cherries are fresh? They should be shiny and firm with no visible bruises or wrinkles. Commercially grown cherries tend to be hardier than the more tender hand-picked cherries from local growers. If it still has its stem, that's a good sign; no hole has been opened to let it start rotting. Also, if the stem is still green, you have a very fresh cherry.

Once you get your cherries home, keep them cold in your refrigerator. To avoid bruising or rotting, don't wash them before storing them. Arrange them in single layers between sheets of paper towels. If you buy cherries pre-bagged at the supermarket, treat them the same way or you'll have a bag of cherries covered in white fuzz in just a few days.

With an ample supply of cherries, all you need to do is choose how you'd like to prepare them. No matter the dish, you'll need to remove the pits as your first step. Some specialty shops sell cherry pitters, newer models of which can pit multiple cherries at one time. A thin cylinder on a hinged handle pierces the cherry, pushing the pit through and leaving (most of) the flesh intact.

If you don't have an official cherry-pitting tool, simply open your desk drawer and pull out a paper clip. Wash it, dry it and unfold it in the center, leaving the two rounded ends intact. Insert one end into the cherry where the stem was removed, turn it, and the pit will pop out. If this isn't clear, several online videos provide detailed instructions.

The intense color of cherries signals their excellent health benefits, including a potent combination of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. One of the old wives' medicine guidelines suggests cherry juice relieves gout symptoms and arthritis pain. Since the amount of juice you'd need to drink each day has not been confirmed by rigorous study, simply enjoy cherries for their essence of summer. Here are two recipes to take advantage of this year's crop.

The cherry relish is delicious as a garnish for grilled meats or as a tangy sandwich spread. The cherry muffins highlight the lovely flavor of tart cherries combined with hints of almond from both almond milk and almond extract – perfect for a summer breakfast.

Cherry Relish

3 C pitted cherries
1/2 C minced red onion
1/4 t salt
1/2 t allspice
2 T balsamic vinegar

If cherries are still in large chunks after pitting, slice into a uniform size. Combine cherries with onion, salt, allspice and vinegar. Garnish with parsley just before serving. This relish goes well with sliced roast beef, pork tenderloin and grilled chicken.

Cherry Oatmeal Muffins

2 C tart cherries
1 1/4 C unsweetened almond milk
1 1/2 C rolled oats
1 1/2 C flour
1/2 C packed brown sugar
1/4 t salt
3 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
2 eggs
1/4 C melted coconut oil
1/2 t almond extract

Preheat oven to 400 F. Prepare a muffin tin by coating cups with nonstick cooking spray or place a silicone or paper liner in each cup.

Pit and slice cherries; place on a piece of waxed paper in a single layer. In a small bowl, stir together oats and milk; soak for 10 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, sift together dry ingredients. In a measuring cup, whisk together eggs, coconut oil and almond extract. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients; pour in egg mixture. Spoon in oat and milk mixture, and fold gently to combine. Add cherries and stir gently to distribute; do not overmix. Fill prepared muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Yield: 12 muffins.

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