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A few years back I remember a friend from out of state asking, “What’s with Michigan people and their cherries?” Until then I thought everyone loved cherries the way I did. As in LOVE cherries in every form – dried, in jams, in desserts and in savory dishes.
The cherries that I’m talking about are tart Montmorency cherries. While sweet cherries are perfectly good and I enjoy them very much as a fresh fruit, they’re not as versatile for cooking and baking.
July is cherry season in Michigan
Michigan is the number one producer of tart cherries in the country, growing about 75 percent of the U.S. crop. About 20 percent of the sweet cherry crop comes from the state too.
Most of the state’s cherries are grown in the Grand Traverse Region where Lake Michigan protects them from extremes of cold and heat. Traverse City, a.k.a. “The Cherry Capitol of the World,” holds the National Cherry Fest every July during peak cherry season.
But plenty of tart cherries are grown in southeastern part of the state too. Peak cherry season means you’ll find both tart and sweet cherries for sale at farmers markets and orchards during most of the month of July.
Tart cherry growers in the Washtenaw County region include Wasem Fruit Farm in Milan, Kapnick Orchards in Britton, and Wolfe Orchard in Tipton. They all offer U-pick and also sell at local farmer’s markets. If you plan to pick yourself, check the website or call ahead to make sure the crop is ready.
After you head home with your cherries, excited to turn them into jam or freeze them for cooking, you have one hurdle to overcome–removing the pits. You could invest in a cherry pitter, but I don’t recommend it unless you’re dealing with a very large quantity. A firm pinch between the thumb and index finder pops the pit right out of tart cherries. Sweet cherries aren’t quite as soft and may need the sharp end of a bottle opener or a skewer to remove the pit.
When it comes to canning, jams are probably one of the easiest things to make, so if you have a very large batch of cherries you might want to give it a try. But if you just want to make a several quarts of jam or fewer, I recommend freezer jam.
Once you have pitted cherries, freezer jam will take you about ten minutes start to finish. While I love how easy it is, I also love the flavor. Conventional jam is cooked so the flavor of the fruit becomes less intense. Freezer jam keeps the flavor of fresh, ripe fruit.
To make freezer jam, you can either follow a recipe using conventional pectin or buy pectin made specifically for freezer jam such as Ball® Brand Instant Pectin. Freezer jam never thickens quite as much as cooked jam, but it’s still perfect for spooning on toast or biscuits.
If you use instant pectin, simply chop the cherries fine and combine with sugar and pectin according to the directions on the pectin container. Stir for three minutes until all the sugar is dissolved and then spoon into plastic or glass containers. Let the jam thicken at room temperature for a few hours. It will keep well in the refrigerator for about three weeks and up to a year in the freezer.
You might also decide to freeze your cherries for use later. Simply place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the freezer until firm, then scoop them into a freezer bag and keep frozen until you need them.
One of my favorite ways to use fresh or frozen cherries is in a galette (also called a rustic tart). This simple, one-crust pie is just right when you want a lot of flavor without fussing over a perfect-looking pie crust. (Which for me is always). Don’t be tempted to use a store bought crust either, because a good butter crust is one of life’s greatest pleasures. This galette recipe will take you step-by-step through the process.
Another way to preserve cherries for later is to dry them. Use either a food dehydrator or try the oven method. Dried cherries are wonderful in cookies, scones, and breads. They’re delicious on your morning oatmeal, or as a quick snack mixed with nuts and chocolate chips.
After you have stocked your pantry with frozen and dried cherries, see below for more recipes using cherries in sweet and savory dishes.
Thanks to Laura Lyjak Crawford for this blog.
Cherry Chocolate Pecan Bread
If you think baking bread is just too time consuming and complicated, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by this recipe.
Simply spend 10 minutes putting the ingredients together one evening and 10 more minutes shaping the loaf the next day and that’s all the work you do. No kneading, no fussy techniques, but probably some of the best bread you’ve ever made.
The secret is the long, slow rise of 12 to 18 hours, which develops both gluten and flavor in the bread, followed by baking in a covered crock at high temperature, which steams the bread and creates a crispy, chewy crust. The only special equipment you need for this is a 5-quart oven-safe ceramic or cast iron Dutch Oven for baking the bread. Makes one loaf.
3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (or combine ½ cup of whole wheat and ½ cup of rye)
2 ½ tsp salt
¼ tsp instant yeast
1 ¾ cup cool water
Stir until well combined and add:
¾ cup chopped, dried Montmorency cherries
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 ½ cups toasted diced pecans
Combine well into a soft dough that hold together well in a ball. You can add a tablespoon or two more water if the dough still has dry bits of flour after mixing well. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a dishtowel and let sit at room temperature for 12-18 hours. The dough will be double in size with visible bubbles when it’s ready for the next step.
Lay the dough on a floured surface and flatten gently into a rectangle about 12 by 8 inches. Gently fold the rectangle into thirds longwise and then in thirds again from the short end so that you create a nice neat little package. Let this rest about 15 minutes.
Gently shape the folded dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl smooth side down for a second rise. Place in a warm spot for 2 hours. Test to see if the dough is ready by poking with your finger; a slight indentation should remain.
30 minutes before baking the bread, place the Dutch Oven in the oven and heat to 500 degrees.
To bake, remove the Dutch Oven (careful, it’s hot!) and tip the dough out of the bowl into it. With a bread knife quickly cut a slit across the top of the dough (This helps the bread rise better in the oven) and quickly replace the top.
Put the Dutch Oven back into the oven, reduce the temperature to 450 degrees and bake covered for 20 minutes.
Remove the cover and bake another 25 to 30 minutes until the crust is nicely browned.
from King Arthur Flour website
Whitefish with Cherries and Shitakes
What could be more perfect than Michigan whitefish with Michigan cherries? This recipe is very similar to the version served at Real Seafood Company in Ann Arbor.
12 ounce whitefish fillet, cut into 3 pieces
5 ounces white or rose wine
8-12 shitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced
2 tablespoon dried Montmorency cherries
olive oil, flour, salt, and pepper as needed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons butter
Season whitefish with salt and pepper, then dredge in flour until coated. Dust off excess flour, and saute in olive oil. Brown lightly, about 5 minutes per side. Remove and keep warm in oven.
Add mushrooms to pan and saute´ lightly. Add cherries and cook a couple more minutes. Remove mushrooms and cherries from pan. Add wine to pan and stir to deglaze until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the cherries and mushrooms back to pan. Add butter and basil, and cook just until butter melts. Stir until well combined. Spoon over fish and serve.
Adapted from the Toledo Blade
This light, fresh salad is easy to make and wonderful for those summer nights when it’s just too hot to cook.
½ cup bulgur
½ cup boiling water
Place bulgur in a bowl. Add salt, cover with boiling water and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes until bulgur is tender.
1 cup chopped parsley
½ cup chopped mint
3/4 cup pitted and halved sweet cherries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped nuts such as pistachio, pecan or cashew
salt to taste
Combine all ingredients, stir together with cooked bulgur and serve.
Adapted from the New York Times