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Eat this! Cherries, a fruit to cherish

Bing cherries, the most popular variety of sweet cherries.

Bing cherries, the most popular variety of sweet cherries.

What it is: A favorite early-summer fruit, cherries are drupes, or stone fruits, and fall into the same family as plums. The two basic species are Prunus avium, sweet cherries, often eaten fresh, and P. cerasus, sour or tart cherries, the usual type for pies.

Where it comes from: Cherry pits found in Stone Age caves attest to the fruit’s ancient origins. Records from China record they were enjoyed there as early as 600 B.C. The fruits likely originated in Asia Minor and were carried by birds to Europe. The Romans also spread cherries throughout Europe.

In the U.S., Washington, Oregon and California are today’s leading producers of sweet cherries, while Michigan is the foremost tart-cherry grower. Only about 10 cultivars are grown commercially, although perhaps 1,000 cherry varieties exist.

What to do with it: Choose firm, ripe cherries that have been kept cool — flavor and texture suffer in warm conditions — and store them refrigerated in a plastic bag for no more than four or five days.

Fresh sweet cherries can be eaten out of hand or used in recipes — try them in salads, chopped into cheese spread or diced over ice cream. You may want to add a little acid to perk up the flavor in cooking. Tart cherries are best used in cooking, though fresh tart cherries can be difficult to find — check farmers’ markets and produce stores. (Because of their short season, the vast majority of tart cherries are grown for processing — freezing, canning and drying. Cherries must be picked ripe — they do not ripen off the tree.)

A cherry pitter will make your life a lot easier if you plan to do a lot of cooking with fresh cherries. Otherwise, you can poke the pits out with a skewer or chopstick.

While cherries are most often used in dessert recipes, they go very well with savory foods, such as game meats, pork, poultry and even beef and seafood, as in the sauce recipe below.

Geja’s Cafe 45th-anniversary
cherry merlot dipping sauce

Chef Julie Swieca

Julie Swieca

Julie Swieca

“I love pairing savory and sweet, and cherries are one of my favorite flavors on earth!” said Julie Swieca, an unemployed pastry chef from Rolling Meadows.

Swieca, a graduate of Northwestern University and Kendall College, created this recipe for the Geja’s Cafe 45th Anniversary Recipe contest. Selected by a tasting panel of six Geja’s culinary staff members over 50 other entries, this winning sauce will accompany the Lincoln Park fondue restaurant’s meat, seafood and vegetable fondues through July 1.

Other Geja’s anniversary celebrations, June 27 through July 1, include a 45-percent discount off food bills. The restaurant will also vindicate sentimental packrats by honoring prices on any original Geja’s receipt from the 1960s.

1 cup pitted cherries, fresh or frozen
1 cup merlot wine
1/2 cup beef broth
1 cup currant jelly
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Slightly thaw cherries if frozen. Puree in food processor. Place pureed cherries, merlot, beef broth, jelly and butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Bring down heat to low and simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until slightly syrupy. Stir in the lime juice, remove from heat and serve as a dipping sauce with fondue bourguignonne or grilled meats, seafood and vegetables. Makes about 3 cups.

 
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