It might be my favorite week of the year: The single week where sour cherries appear at the market. They’re bright red and come in a few varieties (though the market will often group them all together as “sour cherries,” failing to differentiate, say, between the fire engine Early Richmond and the crimson Montmorency). You can’t eat them fresh without puckering. These are not, to be clear, straight-from-the-bag, gone-by-the-time-you’re-home, sweet cherries, addictive and short-lived in their own right. Sour cherries are fickle. They’re small. They’re ruthlessly tart. They complement both sweet and savory foods. They’re time- and labor-intensive. They are terribly difficult to pit (I use a bent paper clip, swirled in a circle, to dislodge mine). And they make the most delicious pies.
I stumbled upon sour cherries quite by accident, in my mid-20s, while perusing a series of articles in the New York Times. I had no idea that there was a distinction between the conventional sweet cherry, on which I had been raised, and the smaller, tarter cousin. But then I read a pie recipe and took myself immediately to the Union Square Farmer’s Market, and, behold: A revelation.
First, as far as food is concerned, part of the magic lies in availability. Yes, I love a sun-warm heirloom tomato as much as anyone, but would I love it quite as much if I could still enjoy its ripeness, its sweetness, its unbridled juiciness, in the middle of February? The same logic applies to sour cherries. They’re a hiccup in the season. Miss a week at market and you could miss them entirely. They’re expensive. They’re not everywhere. And they’re challenging. And so, in the end, the chase is part of the love affair.
Consider this a public service announcement: Get them while they’re available. And then, once you’ve drained your cash on however many quarts you can carry, set up a station in your kitchen: rinse, de-stem, pit. I set up a colander in my sink where I can conduct the dirty work. Unlike their sweet cousins, sour cherries—which boast a nearly translucent interior—won’t stain your fingers purple with their juice. Bend a paperclip into a straight line, insert it into the center of the fruit, swirl the tool into a circle, and pull; the pit will fall out (I set up a bowl beneath my berries for this purpose). If you don’t have time to use them right away, you can line them on a sheet tray, freeze them, and then store them in Ziploc bags in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
But use them you must. The most obvious choice is a pie. I favor a butter-based crust, assembled quickly—though not crudely—in my food processor. While the crust rests for a half hour or so, I combine my cherries with just a whisper of kirsch, some cornstarch, and a heavy hand of sugar. You should taste your pie filling, starch notwithstanding. These cherries are sour, and you will want your pie sweet. If a pie feels too ordinary, toss the fruits of your labor with sugar and a little lemon juice and roast them just enough to make them weep. The still-toothsome cherries can then be split into two portions then: one for puréeing and one for mixing whole. Use a food processor to purée the reserved half and then mix it with freshly whipped cream. Layer in the whole roasted sour cherries and you have the quintessential British dessert known as the fool.
Don’t feel obligated to serve these sweet, though. Sour cherries can also be pickled (I prefer to use a sweet-savory vinegar, like rice vinegar, which produces a less acerbic pickle) and served in a gastrique with Long Island duck. Or, they can be preserved in brandy and used, for many moons to come, as the perfect accouterment to your perfect Manhattan.
Whatever your personal palate preference, make use of these powerful, lovely fruits while they are here. Before you know it, you’ll be drowning in tomatoes and corn, all good things, yes, but not nearly as ephemeral as that fly-by-night summer fruit.