Allan Baugher coaxes his ancient Ford pickup truck up a grassy slope past rows of cherry trees thick with foliage.
As the truck trundles by, there are glimpses of small green pearls nestled among the leaves, some just gaining the blush of maturity. In a few weeks, if all goes well, these will be some of the few but delicious Maryland sweet and sour cherries of the season.
"People enjoy picking cherries," says Baugher, who has managed Baugher's Farm Orchard Market in Westminster since 1953. His family bought the property in 1900. "When you get them tree-ripened, it's hard to find a better fruit anywhere."
The arrival of cherries in markets practically signifies the arrival of summer itself. And like these few months of sun and warmth, cherries are prized for their rarity. Unlike other fruit that is available almost year-round, it is unusual to find fresh cherries in the store past the summer. The season in Maryland, from about mid-June to mid-July, is as fleeting and fantastic as a summer thunderstorm.
"Cherries are a fruit that people equate with American cuisine, whether it's cherry pie or something else," says Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point. "They're something most people have grown up with."
The state's crop of cherries is so small it is not recorded by the state Department of Agriculture. The leading producer of tart cherries is Michigan, while the largest crop of sweet cherries is grown in the Pacific coast states. Most of the cherries raised in Maryland go to a few markets or are consumed at pick-your-own orchards like Baugher's and Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont.
"People just love eating a quart of cherries as they head down the road," says Robert Black, president and co-owner of Catoctin Mountain Orchard. "There's nothing better than picking and eating cherries. You just need to spit the pits out."
In France, as in Maryland, it is the season of cherries, and at Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park, the restaurant marks the occasion with a monthlong cherry festival. To honor the arrival of the red gems, chef Cindy Wolf creates a menu in which three of the four courses put the summer fruit on center stage.
The menu features a cold soup of Bing cherries and nectarines complemented by the addition of lime juice, which heightens the flavor of the fruit. The remainder of the meal features some traditional incarnations of the cherry such as duck in a cherry sauce and the quintessential French dessert, clafoutis.
Some of Wolf's other favorite cherry dishes show up on the menu at her restaurant Charleston, like cherries marinated in raspberry vinegar with a little sugar served with pan-seared foie gras. "If you are into making foie gras at home, that's easy to do and just a breathtaking way to eat cherries," she says.
There are as many varieties of cherries as there are shades of red, from the Queen Anne, which is a cream-colored cherry with a slight red blush, to the deep-red Bing cherry that is the most famous sweet cherry.
Cherries also vary in flavor. A Queen Anne will have a milder sweetness than a deep, dark-red variety. A sour cherry (sometimes called a tart cherry) can make an unseasoned eater pucker. It is this versatility that makes cherries such a hit with cooks.
"Because they have more than one variety, you have something for the folks that want something sweet and you have the sour cherry for those who like the sour; you have an option. And it's not like when you have a peach and a nectarine that have a similar fleshy texture. You don't have another piece of fruit that tastes like a cherry," says Longo. "Cherries ground up into a puree have a wonderful texture to make into sorbet or ice cream and, in terms of stewing or putting into a pie, they tend to hold their shape well."
When it comes to the use of sweet vs. sour cherries, the kitchen divides down personal taste lines. "I had an employee bring me in sour cherries from their house and I cannot imagine using them for anything other than making jam!" says Wolf.
However, Longo likes to snack on sour cherries, gently smashing them with the palm of her hand to remove the pit. Baugher dips them in a little sugar before eating them raw.
He says that while customers often buy sour cherries for making jam and pies, he's seen a rising demand for the fruit for savory dishes, especially now that new research indicates sour cherries are a source of antioxidants, including melatonin, which may help with everything from the pain of arthritis to fighting cancer.
Gregory Wentz, certified executive chef and a chef instructor at the Baltimore International College, prefers sour cherries for cooking. "I think the sour cherries have a little more cherry flavor, so to speak, because if you took the sugars away from the sweet cherries, I think you have inferior quality of flavors."
According to Wentz, there are endless ways to use fresh cherries, from adding them to a demiglace for lamb or chicken to including them in desserts. "Make a spice cake, slice it thin horizontally, smear it with cream cheese, dot it with fresh sweet cherries that have been pitted, and basically close it back up and it's ready for slicing," says Wentz. He adds that the cream cheese can be sweetened with a little sugar and lemon juice. "The texture of the firm fruit, the soft cream cheese and that flavor blast really accentuates the spice cake."
When selecting a cherry, it helps to know what variety you are selecting because cherries have different indicators of ripeness. However, with most sweet cherries, the darker the red, the better.
"Look for a deeper, blackish-red as the bright red might be immature and not very flavorful," says Baugher. "Keep them refrigerated with the pits in. If they aren't cracked, they can hold up for two to three weeks."
To get the most from your cherries, keep them in a bowl where air can circulate around them, like a colander, and remove deteriorating cherries so the rot does not spread.
For all their flavor, cherries are a tad difficult to eat because of their pits. When eating cherries out-of-hand, part of the fun is to simply spit the pits out.
When cooking with cherries, there are myriad theories about pit removal, from cutting it out with a paring knife to using a blunt object to push the pit through. However, the best bet is a cherry pitter, available at most housewares stores and some farmers' markets.
"You can buy them at Williams-Sonoma and they really do work at home. Simply wash them [cherries], pull off the stem and pit them -- it takes a second," says chef Wolf. "It also saves the skin on your hands because, obviously, the juice from the cherries will really stain your fingers."
Although cherries can be frozen -- with the pits in or out -- and savored when the season is passed, there is something about eating a bowl of deep-red cherries in the summer heat and spitting out the pits that brings on a certain sense of nostalgia. The pace of time slows and suddenly everything rotates around enjoying this precious taste of summer.
"We have people who come by every couple of days to buy a quart of cherries and just enjoy them. Fresh eating is the best for sweet cherries," says Black of Catoctin Mountain Orchard. "The flavor and the joy of popping them in your mouth, maybe even getting a little juice running down your cheeks -- this is just a wonderful time of year."
Chipotle Cherry BBQ Sauce
Makes about 3 cups
1 pound sour black cherries
2 cups ketchup
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons chipotle paste
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dry coriander
1/3 cup chopped fine cilantro
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon onion powder
Pit the cherries, then add them to the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes. Do not boil because the sauce will become too thick. If that occurs, add a few more tablespoons of ketchup and a tablespoon or two of water to thin the sauce enough to coat a spoon. Brush the barbecue sauce on pork, chicken or shrimp.
-- Chef Nancy Longo
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 53 calories; 1 gram protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 259 milligrams sodium
Chilled Bing Cherry Soup
Makes 4 servings
2 cups Bing cherries, pitted
1/2 cup nectarines, small dice
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup brown sugar or to your taste
juice from 1/2 fresh lime
Put all ingredients in the blender and puree until smooth.
-- Chef Cindy Wolf
Per serving: 274 calories; 3 grams protein; 12 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 41 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 25 milligrams cholesterol; 44 milligrams sodium
Fresh Cherry Salsa for Caramelized Salmon
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds fresh salmon fillet with skin
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh tart (sour) cherries (see note)
1 ripe mango or papaya, seeded, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, basil or cilantro
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Place fish, skin side down, in a shallow pan. Stir together brown sugar, orange peel and pepper. Rub sugar mixture over fish. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 8 hours.
Rinse cherries; remove stems and pit cherries. If desired, cut cherries in half. Set aside to use in salsa.
Remove fish from pan, draining off any juices. Place salmon, skin-side down, on gas grill over medium heat or on charcoal grill 4 to 6 inches from medium-hot coals. Grill for 20 to 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Do not turn fish.
Meanwhile, prepare salsa. Toss together pitted cherries, mango or papaya chunks, mint, balsamic vinegar and red pepper. Spoon fresh cherry salsa over warm fish. Serve immediately.
Note: One-half cup dried tart cherries can be substituted for fresh tart cherries.
Variation: To bake salmon instead of grilling, spray a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Put salmon, skin-side down, in pan. Rub with sugar mixture. Cover with foil and refrigerate 2 to 8 hours.
Bake, covered, in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove cover and bake 5 to 10 minutes, or until fish flakes easily. Prepare cherry salsa as directed above; spoon over warm fish. Serve immediately.
-- Cherry Marketing Institute
Per serving: 384 calories; 39 grams protein; 13 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 28 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 107 milligrams cholesterol; 93 milligrams sodium