April rains adversely affected the early varieties of California cherries, but the late-season crop now available is of excellent quality, according to Jan DeLyser of the Fresh Produce Council, a Los Angeles-based trade group.
Happily, as supplies of Southern California cherries wind down, shipments from the Northwest will extend the season at local supermarkets through July. Still, it is all too brief; by August, those who savor this summer fruit will find it hard to find.
Even now, anyone planning a picking excursion to either of the two nearest growing areas will find it advisable to telephone before leaving to verify the availability of pickable fruit.
Growers in the Leona Valley, northwest of Palmdale, report the crop is small this year and only some of the ranches will be open for sales and picking. Call the Leona Valley Country Store, (805) 270-0613, for current information.
Cherry Valley growers near Beaumont also have a small crop, most of which will be depleted by the time of their festival Wednesday to June 19. Call (714) 845-3628.
There are two groups of cherries--sweet and sour. Among the dark red / purple-skinned sweet varieties, Bing and Lambert are the two dominant commercial types; others are Black Tartarian, Chapman, Burlat and other Bing look-alikes.
Royal Anns are the best known of the yellow-skinned varieties. Few of the sour, so-called "pie cherries" are sold fresh. Most are canned or frozen.
When selecting cherries, look for bright, fresh-appearing, plump, ripe fruit with good color for their variety. Sweet cherries should be firm; sour, medium-firm. They are quite perishable, so plan to use cherries within a couple days of purchase. Store, unwashed, spread in a single layer on a jellyroll pan lined with paper towels. Cover with more paper towels and plastic wrap.
Wash the cherries just before using. If they need to be pitted, you'll find a cherry pitting tool a big assistance--a couple of types are available at cookware specialty stores. Other possibilities include using the end of a paper clip to form a hook or the tip of a vegetable parer to pry out the pits.
Because cherry season is so brief, the temptation is to consume enough to satiate yourself while you can. Perhaps the better alternative is to enjoy the fresh fruit now and preserve some for the months ahead. Once you can gain enough control to stop just popping the cherries into your mouth, try them in today's recipe for Sweet Cherry Pie. Ground almonds in the crust and almond extract in the filling complement the fruit's flavor.
Some years ago, wine maker Albert Cribari shared a recipe for cooking dark sweet cherries in zinfandel to create a delicious sauce for serving over pound cake, ice cream or a combination of both--we're passing it along. The fruit is also a natural in two classics, the pancakelike pastry called clafouti and a Scandinavian-style cold soup that is equally delicious served as a first course or dessert.
Two Leona Valley cherry growers shared recipes for preserving the fruit. Lois Powell's Pickled Cherries make a nice condiment for summer picnics or meats throughout the year. Marie Waters' version of Cherry Cordial will be ready for the holiday season, the liquid served as a liqueur and the cherries used in fruitcakes. Cherry-Citrus Conserve is still another way to savor the fruit throughout the year.
SWEET CHERRY PIE
2 1/4 cups flour
1 1/8 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons ground almonds
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening or 2/3 cup lard
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
5 cups pitted sweet cherries
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 egg yolk
Combine 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt and almonds in bowl. Cut in shortening. Sprinkle in water, 1 tablespoon at time, mixing until all flour is moistened and dough almost cleans side of bowl. Gather dough into ball.
Divide dough in half and shape into 2 flattened rounds. Roll 1 portion to round 2 inches larger than inverted 9-inch pie plate. Fit pastry into pie plate leaving 1-inch overhang.
Toss cherries with sugar, lemon juice, remaining 1/4 cup flour and 1/8 teaspoon salt and almond extract. Turn into pastry-lined pan. Roll out remaining dough and cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips.
Place 5 to 7 strips across filling in pie plate. Weave 1 cross strip through center by folding back every other strip in opposite direction. Continue weaving until lattice is complete, folding back alternate strips each time cross-strip is added. Trim edges of strips. Fold trimmed edge of lower crust over ends of strips, building high edge. Seal and flute.
Bake at 425 degrees 25 minutes. Beat egg yolk and brush over lattice and crust edges. Continue to bake 15 more minutes. If top crust browns too rapidly, cover with light tent or strips of foil. Serve warm or cold. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
ALBERT CRIBARI'S CHERRIES ZINFANDEL
2 pounds sweet cherries
2 cups zinfandel
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons currant jelly