Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
It was 1988 when musician Bobby McFerrin — in his signature a capella style — gave the world some practical, if magical advice: "Don’t worry, be happy." But many decades earlier, during the Great Depression, a songwriting team conjured up a similar sentiment, reminding us to let go of our troubles and instead think of life as "just a bowl of cherries."
For kicks, try substituting cherries — Life is just a bowl of ________ — with any other card-carrying member of the fruit world. Life isn’tjust a bowl of bananas, grapes or apricots, no matter how hard we try. What is it about the cherry that urges us not to take the business of life so seriously?
In his fruit-centric book Ripe, British author Nigel Slater notes that cherries "bring with them a certain frivolity, a carefree joy like hearing the far-off laughter of a child at play."
I put Slater’s words to the test and grab a handful of cold cherries from a proverbial bowl in the refrigerator. I sit on the couch, knees crouched up to my chest. I lift a cherry by its stem and place it in between my lips, then tug on the stem. With the bowl under my chin to catch any random squirts, I bite down and immediately feel the rush of sweet nectar as well as the pebble-y edges of the pit. Without hesitation, I push the pit to a side pocket of my mouth, savor the sun-kissed cherry flesh, then curl my tongue and hurl the pit, slingshot-style, into the bowl.
Juvenile behavior? The cherry seems to draw it out of even the most mature among us.
Even in the kitchen, the cherry keeps the fun and games going, an affable companion to both savory and sweet ingredients — almonds, chocolate, chile peppers, ham and stinky cheese are among the many willing playmates.
Better hurry; the clock is ticking on cherry season, which lasts throughout the month of July and into the first half of August.
And now for the news...
A Brief History
Botanically, the cherry is part of the genus Prunus in the rose family, a relative of the apricot, peach, plum and almond. Both the sour (prunus cerasus) and sweet (prunus avium) cherry have a long lineage that probably originated in western Asia. The word "cherry" appears to be a derivative of the Greek word "kerasos," also the name of a city in what is now considered Turkey (currently the world leader in cherry production).
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the sweet cherry figured into the 1st century AD writings of Pliny the Elder, who counted at least eight varieties enchanting his fellow Romans. Both sweet and sour varieties made their way through western and northern Europe; they likely arrived on this side of the pond in the 17th century — the Brits in New England and the French in the Great Lakes. American cultivation took off in the 1800s in the Pacific Northwest for sweet cherries and in northern Michigan for sour varieties (aka "tart" among industry folk).
- Michigan’s Traverse City is known as the (sour) cherry capital of the world, home to an annual festival since 1948 and a robust sour cherry industry. But this year’s festivities surely have been hampered by a nearly nonexistent sour cherry harvest, down by 68 percent (157 million tons last year compared to 5.5 million tons this year). Due to wildly fluctuating temperatures this spring, the cherry blossoms didn’t have a fighting chance.
- The best-known (and most prolific) variety of American sweet cherry is the Bing, a 19th century cultivar developed in Oregon by horticulturist Seth Lewelling. It was named after Ah Bing, a Manchurian foreman on Lewelling’s tree fruit nursery.
After Turkey, the U.S. is the world’s second leading producer of cherries.
In addition to Michigan, major sour cherry-producing states are: New York (also hit hard this year), Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Oregon. The best-known varieties are Montmorency and Morello, preferred by pie bakers (sour cherries are sometimes referred to as ‘pie cherries').
There are seven major sweet cherry-producing states, with Washington State leading the pack. Washington and Oregon combined harvest about 60 percent of the nation’s sweet cherries that include the Bing, Lapin, Sweetheart and the yellow-blushed Rainier varieties. California and Idaho are also major contributors to the sweet cherry harvest.
While sour cherries took a beating, this year’s sweet cherry crop is abundant, up 11 percent compared to last year.
Americans eat an average of 2.6 pounds of cherries per year.
A relatively short season and abundance in several parts of the country put the cherry high on a local food lover’s list. But because of its high perishability, the modern cherry has had its share of environmental woes and agricultural worker safety concerns, namely with pesticides and fungicides. A top offender has been azinphos-methyl, a pesticide widely used among orchard crops for decades, which has been linked to health problems for farm workers. Citing "a high degree of risk to agricultural workers, as well as significant acute ecological risks," the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 ordered an eventual phasing-out of azinphos-methyl; according to EPA documents, the phase-out is to be complete by September of this year.
This would explain why until recently, the cherry was a member of the Environmental Working Group’s "Dirty Dozen," the 12 produce items with the highest pesticide load. Its rank has recently improved — ever so slightly — to #14, so the pesticide load remains a concern.
Frankly, it is tough to find organic, pesticide-free cherries, so your best course of action is to talk to growers at the source — from farmers' markets to pick-your-own orchards — and get the 411 on their pesticide programs. (*Also, see our veggie rule of thumb, below.)
The cherries you see in the supermarket in January? They've been flown in from Chile.
And now for some uplifting news: The cherry is a motherlode of nutrients and disease-fighting antioxidants. One cup of cherries (approximately 21 pitted) have just 90 calories and is a rich source of potassium and Vitamin C, plus fiber and even a small amount of protein.
What intrigues this cherry lover is the plethora of anthocyanins (the source of the red pigment), which possess preventative powers that have been linked to lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes. As an anti-inflammatory, the cherry is showing great potential as a pain reliever for arthritis and maybe even gout.
What to Look For
No browning, bruising or any other boo-boos, please. Because of its soft flesh, the cherry is fragile. A sweet cherry in all of its cherry-ness is dark, juicy and firm. In just a matter of days, it can turn from sweet to fermented.
What to Do With It
In case you hadn’t noticed, cherries are highly perishable. Keep in the refrigerator unwashed until ready to eat. Wash thoroughly before serving.
Too many cherries and not enough time? Freeze them: Wash, stem and remove the pits. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer and transfer to the freezer, if space permits. Transfer cherries to a freezer bag or freezer-friendly container. The tray freezing step helps to keep cherries from clumping.
Is a Cherry Pitter Worth all the Hype?
It depends. For large volumes of fruit, a hand-held pitter is indispensable. For smaller amounts, a paring knife will do the job – or try this trick from the gals at Food 52 — a chop stick jerryrigged over a bottle.
Once pitted, the cherry is a cook’s dream in every realm: raw or cooked, savory or sweet, fresh or preserved. I've made cherry salsa, clafoutis, pie, cobbler, brownies, jam, ketchup and leather. Cherry leather? Why yes indeed. Keep reading for those details, and get the neighborhood kids involved. They'll think you're a magician — another reason to love the sweet, care-free cherry.
Cherry Fruit Leather
Adapted from Put'em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton
4 cups sweet dark cherries, stemmed and pitted
A large splash (About 1/4 cup) of water
1/3 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Parchment paper or silicone baking mat, baking tray, immersion blender or stand blender.
Here’s What to Do:
Place the cherries and water in a medium-sized saucepan (a deeper pot is good if using an immersion blender in the pan) and bring to a boil. Simmer until the cherries begin to break down, 10 to 15 minutes.
Puree the fruit, using an immersion blender or by pouring it into a stand blender and then back into the pot again.
Preheat the oven to 170°F. Line a jelly-roll pan or rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat and set aside.
Add the sugar and continue to simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, until the puree thickens to the consistency of baby food; this may take 10 to 15 minutes.
Spread the thickened puree onto the baking sheet, tilting to create an even layer about 1/8 inch thick. Bake in the oven until just tacky to the touch, 2 to 3 hours (I would estimate closer to 3).
Cool to room temperature. Slide the leather (and its liner) onto a cutting board and carefully peel away the leather. Slice the leather in half vertically. Roll up each half and slice each roll into strips, about 2 inches wide. Store roll-ups in an airtight container for a few weeks.
(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)
Kim O'Donnelis a trained chef, nationally recognized online food personality and longtime journalist. She is also the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook and the forthcoming Meat Lover’s Holiday Table, and the founder ofCanning Across America.