Califonia Bountiful

Cherries: The leader of the stone fruit parade

May/June 2008 California Country magazine

Praise for cherries, a stone fruit grown in many varieties.

Hold on to your hats. Mother Nature has orchards, fields and produce stands overflowing with an expanding, delicious variety of spring and summer selections. Topping the list is the stone fruit family, which includes cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums and pluots. The common denominator is the pit, or stone, inside each of these fruits. Because they’re the smallest, cherries arrive early in the stone fruit season. (Simply put, there’s less of the fruit to ripen.)

California is third in sweet cherry production, growing about 14 percent of the nation’s total in 2006. Generally our cherry season runs from late May through late June.

The Bing is California’s most widely grown variety. This large, heart-shaped fruit really sets the flavor and texture standard for all cherries. When ripe, its smooth, glossy skin ranges from maroon to near black and yields to crisp, succulent flesh. Bings ripen later than some varieties such as Brooks, Tartarian, Tulare, Burlat and Van.

Keep an eye out for the delicate, yellow and rose-blushed Rainier cherry, a cross of the Bing and Van. When ripe, they are particularly sweet. The Royal Ann variety, another light-skinned cherry, has been all but eclipsed by the hardier Rainier over the past 20 years or so.

Aside from pies and tarts, consider pairing cherries with apricots in crisps and cobblers. Be sure to add some toasted almonds in the topping, as the combination of these relatives seems to enhance one another. You could also go Scandinavian and make a cherry soup. Or put up a compote and save it for a dreary winter day.

On the savory side, cherries have a fine affinity for all things pork and duck. Preserve some in brandy for future use or enjoy some cherries jubilee right now. Roast a few pitted cherries, cool and then scatter over a mixed green salad with toasted almonds and some goat cheese. Perhaps best is to simply eat them out of hand. However you use them, now is the time. Don’t miss the leading fruit in the stone fruit parade!

Ripe for the picking

It’s always harvest time in California! Here are a couple of other things to try this time of year:

Peas: Because their natural sugars convert quickly to starch after harvest, freshness is everything. Peas are delicate and tender, needing only a touch of cooking. Butter, salt and pepper—perfect!

Apricots: We’re lucky in California because we regularly see fresh, ripe crops of this delicate stone fruit. Prized among apricot aficionados is the Blenheim variety, a smaller fruit that ripens from the inside out.

Tomatoes: Now through September is prime tomato time. This heat-loving fruit (botanically speaking) is incredibly versatile. Basil, noted below, is the perfect herb to pair them with.

Rhubarb: Known by some as the pie plant for obvious reasons, these crimson spears are also wonderful stewed and served over ice cream or yogurt.

Basil: Now is the time to make a big batch of pesto. For easy portioning, freeze in ice cube trays and transfer to resealable plastic bags.

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