Cafe Pasqual’s Sour Cherry Pie delivers summer in a bite.
IN THE COOLER CLIMES of our fruit-laden state, cherry season strikes in June. That’s when the fruits burst forth in orchards and backyards, inspiring everyone to climb a ladder to reach the tasty crop—and when kitchen shops struggle to keep up with the demand for handheld pitters.
The short season—usually just three to four weeks in New Mexico—has foodies staining their fingers with the sweet and tart juice as they gobble them up by the handful. Loaded with nutrients and vitamins—including vitamins C, A, and K, plus potassium, magnesium, and calcium—they are low in calories and high in fiber and melatonin (which can help you sleep).
As kids, we dug into a hot fudge sundae by first devouring the neon-red maraschino that topped it. Savvy adult manhattan drinkers know that the best garnish is Luxardo cherries from Italy. From George Washington’s fabled chopped-down cherry tree to the big blush of cherry blossoms each spring in Washington, D.C., these small stone fruits are married to our popular culture. They even made their way into the American songbook in 1931, when Ethel Merman implored a country in the throes of the Great Depression to not take life so seriously, because, after all, “Life is just a bowl of cherries.”
Belonging to the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and almonds, the cherry arrived in America in the early 1600s, brought to the colonies by European settlers. At the same time, Spanish travelers along the Camino Real carried a wide variety of fruit to new homes in places like Mexico City and Santa Fe. Historical records state that cherries were found in New Mexico as early as 1630. One can assume birds added their cultivating skills, too.
Today, cherries are most often found in the higher elevations of southern New Mexico and amid the cooler temps of the north. Sweet cherries to look for include Bing, Rainier, Lambert, Whitegold, Stella, Blackgold, and Lapins. If you prefer the heartier sour variety, Montmorency, Balaton, and Danube do well in the north.
This summer, why not pack the kids in the car and turn them into cherry harvesters? Nichols Ranch and Orchards, in La Luz, near Alamogordo, offers U-pick options. Don’t miss the Nichols Ranch Cherry Festival, June 19–20, with food stalls, music, samples, competitions (pit spitting?), and local arts and crafts.
Preserving the bounty is relatively easy. Bake them into pies or can and freeze them. The sturdy structure of the fruit helps cherries keep their shape, flavor, and texture.
To freeze, simply wash, pit, and scatter on a parchment-lined sheet pan and freeze until firm. Transfer to a freezer bag and, during a hot summer day, eat right from the bag like a mini popsicle or plop them into a smoothie. To can either quickly cooked or raw cherries, place them in jars with either light or heavy syrup, depending on what you intend to use them for later in the year. For a light syrup, simmer 2 cups of sugar with 4 cups of water until sugar is dissolved. Heavy syrup is made the same way with equal parts sugar to water.
Cherries quickly soften into a jam when you cook them with sugar, lemon juice, and pectin. Some cooks sneak in a shot of kirsch (a clear brandy) or even gin, amaretto, or whiskey—but not too much or you overpower the flavor. Both the jam and the canned cherries must be cooked in a water bath to safely seal the jars.
Cherry-infused drinks, especially cider, have become popular here. If you head to the Cherry Festival, stop by the Old Apple Farm, nine miles east in Mountain Park, for some tasty juice. For cider that packs a punch, look for Sandia Black Cherry Hard Cider, made by the Craftroom, in Albuquerque, and available in grocery stores statewide.
From desserts to barbecue, the following recipes are perfect for cherries right off the tree—the best fruit forward, if you will.
BOWLS OF CHERRIES