By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
On a recent weekend trip to Moscow, I ran into a friend, transplanted from Sandpoint. She was heading out of town, but invited me to her home to pick just-ripe fruit from her cherry tree.
Directions in hand, it was easy to find the neat white house and the sturdy tree that loomed large in the backyard. With a soft-sided cooler slung across my body, I ascended the wobbly old wooden ladder and reached cherry heaven.
This is an amazing year for sweet cherries, and her tree was laden with plump, sweet, ripe fruit. Perched on the top wrung, I deftly picked cherries off the branches and dropped them into the cooler with one hand while clutching a limb for support with the other. As I swayed to and fro on the unsteady ladder, I paused momentarily and reflected on “my broken ankle” incident from two summers past and the six weeks I spent housebound (and sullen). I decided it wasn’t prudent to use the unreliable stretch, reach and lean-in method, so in a rare moment of clarity, I descended and left the highest and ripest cherries behind for someone younger (and taller).
There are plenty of cherries to go around this season, that’s for sure. Growers of Montana’s Flathead Lake cherries are reporting a record crop. You can join them for a sample and a great weekend filled with all things cherry at the Annual Flathead Lake Cherry Festival in Polson, on Saturday, July 16, or Sunday, July 17, 2016. Closer to home, the Green Bluff Growers north of Spokane are also rejoicing in a plentiful cherry crop, with a celebration on Thursday, July 21, that will include a 6.4-mile run through Green Bluff’s orchards. Both events boast live music and the obligatory “Cherry Pit Spit,” so practice up folks.
Whether you pull up to one of the seasonal roadside stands that dot Montana’s scenic Highway 93, or head to a u-pick site along the south shore of Flathead lake, the season for these sweet cherries is short, lasting a little more than a month, and they usually ripen the first week of July. Nothing says “Montana road trip” like sticky, red stained fingers reaching into a crumpled brown paper bag for just one more cherry. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t eat just one more.
To curb my addiction, I have been known to stop the car and put the cherries out of arm’s reach, buried deep in the trunk. And, shamefully, I must admit I’ve stopped but a few short miles later to retrieve them.
Likewise for Green Bluff’s sweet cherry season. It’s also short and dependent on Mother Nature, who can be so unforgiving. Cherry trees don’t tolerate wetness. A harsh and heavy rain can split the fruit, leaving it virtually worthless barely before harvest. Cherry seeds require exposure to cold to germinate. The pits are first chilled, then planted in the fall. Seedlings emerge in the spring, producing fruit in three to four years and finally, reaching full maturity at seven years.
If you want to venture out internationally, our neighbors to the north in Creston B.C. (think Selkirk Loop) are also prolific growers of sweet cherries. It’s a beautiful hour-long drive to this rich agricultural area, and the cherries, along with other locally grown Creston fruit, are allowed back across our U.S. border.
From their beautiful beginnings as delicate and fragrant springtime blossoms to their maturity as cherries, this fruit is a wonderful addition to your summertime menu. Fresh and practically begging to be eaten by the handful or dried as a flavorful addition to trail mixes, sauces, salads, compotes and chutneys, cherries are a such a versatile fruit. Canned or frozen, they can be used cooked for jams, juices and syrups or baked into dozens of desserts, including pies, crisps and cobblers.
Whether you go east or west or north in search of this luscious summer fruit, just getting going. Every direction offers a beautiful day’s road trip in support of our regional farmers. Just remember to get home with enough cherries for a batch or two of Cherry Compote.
This tasty appetizer is a great combination of flavors and colors. For a summer salad, toss fresh arugula with olive oil, spoon on the cherry mixture and top with blue cheese and almonds. Serve the crostini on the side.
•1 shallot, thinly sliced
•2 teaspoons olive oil
•12-oz fresh sweet cherries, pitted
•2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
•2 tablespoons brown sugar
•¼ teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
•1/8 teaspoon salt
•1/8 teaspoon pepper
•½ lb wedge blue cheese, thinly sliced
For Crostini: 1 Baguette, slice thin, brush both sides with olive oil and toast in 350º oven for 15 minutes.
Sauté shallot in hot oil in a medium skillet for 2 to 3 minutes or until tender. Add cherries and next 5 ingredients. Cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes or until thickened.
Let stand 10 minutes.
Top crostini with blue cheese and spoonful of cherry mixture. Garnish with toasted almonds slices.
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