Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Cult of the Sour Cherry

They're elusive. They're delicate. Their growing season is short. They make a brief appearance in select markets - I counted only a few sightings at the Union Square Greenmarket - and none at all at most gourmet stores. Consequently, their fans, an "almost cultlike following," in the words of the New York Times, have been known to head to farms to pick their own. My sister planned her her backyard garden with them in mind, and has reorganized and replanted repeatedly, hoping for some success.

Just what is about sour cherries that warrants such devotion?

"They are perfect," my sister said when I posed this question to her."Their shape and size are very pleasing. Their flavor is perfectly sweet and sour. Their texture is nice and light, not as dense as sweet cherries, although I like sweet cherries too. If only they weren't so hard to come by."

Sadly, my sister's sour cherry tree looks more like her fig tree than this lush beauty.

So it's off to the market.

For those who blinked and missed the Greenmarket's crop of sour cherries, a pilgrimage must be made to Brighton Beach. Forget hipster Brooklyn enclaves like Gowanus  and Red Hook that are making the "Brooklyn" brand an international shorthand for coolness. For produce lovers, this Russian area is Brooklyn's best neighborhood. This rule applies doubly for enthusiasts of produce that is popular with Eastern Europeans.

In case you're wondering if sour cherries fall into this category, take a look at this UN Food and Agricultural Organization chart (courtesy of Wikipedia) or a rival chart about sour cherry production embedded in this Power Point presentation.

RankCountrySour cherry production in Metric Tonnes

(For those Russians who can't cope with sour cherries' short season, there's always компот (compote). 

Sour cherries fall into two categories: the dark red morello, which have red flesh, and rosy red amarelle, which have pale flesh. (Compare the picture at the top of this blog post with the picture below.)  Montmorency cherries, an amarelle variety, are the most widely sold in the US.  

But how do sour cherries stack up against  "regular" Bing cherries? I bought some of each to find out.

As you can see from the pictures, sour cherries (on the left) are smaller and rounder and a little lighter in color. Their flesh is less dense than the Bing cherries' and their taste is - no surprise here - tangy and and a bit pucker-worthy, less uncomplicatedly sweet than the Bings' taste. Both kinds of cherries were very pleasing. In the interest of being thorough in my research, I ate all of both kinds.

Sour cherries have a different nutritional profile than sweet cherries. They have a little less sugar and fewer calories. Their tart taste is also associated with their high concentration of antioxidants. 

According to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, sour cherries have "the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food." A roundup of the health benefits of sour cherries by the National College of Natural Medicine is impressive: tumor reduction in parts of the gut; improved quality and duration of sleep (because of sour cherries' melatonin; decreased post-exercise muscle soreness and inflammation; and greater strength following exerciseChoose Cherries, the website of a trade group that promotes sour cherries, lists studies that link sour cherries to reduced risk of heart disease; reduced risk of stroke; reductions in the inflammation associated with arthritis and gout; and reductions in blood cholesterol and triglycerides. The American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry suggested that sour cherries might be helpful in lowering diabetic people's blood sugar levels and increasing insulin production, prompting the author of its announcement to write, "Perhaps George Washington wouldn't have chopped down his father's cherry tree if he knew what chemists now know."  

Of course, before there were chemists analyzing sour cherries' health benefits, there were chefs creating sour cherry delicacies: sour cherry soup (fondly recalled as a summertime treat by my Viennese neighbor Rose), kriek lambic beer, Persian sour cherry-saffron rice, Turkish nectars and syrups, and my husband's favorite dessert, cherry strudel. (He, like other Upper East Siders of a certain vintage, still mourns the loss of the great Mrs. Herbst but gains comfort in the existence of Andre's Cafe and European Bakery.)

And you needn't be from Eastern Europe or Western Asia to appreciate the culinary possibilities: the US has its own ode to sour cherries: cherry pie.

But when you're torn between fried cherry pie pockets and medicinal "superfood" tart cherry powder - a divide that nicely epitomizes our oftentimes crazy approach to food in this country - remember, there's a lovely fruit in there. 

And you don't have to be a cultist to enjoy it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Grow Your Own, Part 2

I don't have a backyard like my sister does, so my balcony garden is a strictly containers-only arrangement. In the past I've grown - I mean attempted to grow - interesting and ambitious stuff such as cantaloupes and raspberries. The raspberries did fine on their own, but the cantaloupes required pollination. This work is normally falls under the job description of a bee, but our balcony is on the 16th floor, where the flying insects are typically mosquitoes. The one and only time I saw a bee, it was interested only in the tiny flowers of a basil plant. "The cantaloupe flowers, you stupid bee! Go to the cantaloupe! What's your problem?" I shouted, jabbing my finger at the showy blossoms of our cantaloupe plant. Amazingly, the insults and crazed pointing didn't work. The bee ignored me and continued its engagement with the miniature basil buds. My husband ended up pollinating the cantaloupe blossoms with a paintbrush. The plant yielded netted one cantaloupe the size of a softball, thoroughly inedible.

This year I grew some sensible and very good stuff: very sweet cherry tomatoes, flavorful hot peppers and a range of herbs.

I've been pretty delighted with this year's garden. The basil in particular has been bountiful enough to share - the true pride of the summer gardener.

But there's no sense in getting cocky. There in the corner, is the fig tree, faithfully watered in its doomed container with odd bits of failed seed growth and an expired dill plant. 

That's okay. I grew up in a Mets fan family, a cult in which irrational optimism is given voice in the cheer: There's Always Next Year.