The Hudson Valley is known for plenty of wonderful things. We have lovely apples, amazing corn, and incredible milk for cheese and other dairy products. After all, the Hudson Valley was one of the first great bread baskets of America due to it’s proximity to Albany and New York City, the ability to ship goods utilizing the river for transport, and of course its rich soil. It’s not uncommon for down-staters to travel up the Taconic in search of pick your own apples, fresh pressed cider, cider doughnuts, artisan cheeses, and plenty of other treats grown in right in our backyard. There’s one item that we have in the Hudson Valley that doesn’t get as much attention as those others, and I may have an idea why.
I’m talking about the diminutive but powerful cherry. But of course I’m not talking about just any cherries. Cherries come in two primary categories: sour and sweet. Sweet cherries are the cherries that you can find in the grocery store shipped all the way from places like Michigan or Washington state. We grow them here in the Hudson Valley also and they’re perfectly nice as a fruit to eat out of hand. They’re sweet, juicy, and it’s fun to spit the pits at your little sister. There’s nothing particularly wrong with sweet cherries, but when you’re looking for real cherry flavor that packs a punch you want sours.
Sour cherries aren’t all too pleasant to eat out of hand, and I think that fact contributes to why many Americans don’t go out of their way to pick them. We have a bucolic image of picking cherries in which we eat just as much as we pick right there in the orchard. You won’t find yourself doing this with sour cherries however. They are really tart, with a bit of astringency that leaves your mouth dry. I find that popping one or two over the course of the picking is nice as a little wake-me-up, but you won’t want to eat buckets of them. In order to harness the power of sour cherries you have to cook them, and you have to add a sweetener, but once you do so their flavor can’t be beat.
In the Hudson Valley there seems to be two sour cherry varieties that are primarily grown. They’re referred to colloquially as “red sours” and “black sours”, but their proper names are Montmorency and Morello, respectively. I used to pick red sours because it fit into my schedule better. I went to an orchard that had them available for a much larger window of time, and it was long hard work to pick them. Still, the cocktail cherries, pickled cherries, and cherry jam was all worth it. Then last year we had a late frost, which wiped out much of the cherry crop. The only cherries I could get my hands on were black sours grown at another orchard. This particular orchard usually sold out within a couple of days, especially with the short supply. Rather than going on a day that worked for my schedule I made it a point to show up bright on early on opening day so that I didn’t miss out.
The tragedy of limited cherries last year taught me quite a bit about cherry picking. First, I learned that if you want to pick a lot (Dominick and I picked 60 pounds last year), you have to show up early. In the past I had gone when I felt like it and had to glean the trees for errant cherries left by other pickers. When you go on the opening day you’re treated to large clusters of cherries that make the work go a lot faster. We found that we could pick about thirty pounds each in an hour when the trees were loaded. It used to take me several hours to pick half that at the orchard where the trees were picked over already.
I also learned that I greatly prefer the black sour Morello cherries to the red sour Montmorency cherries. The red cherries lose their color very easily. If you’re making cocktail cherries or pickled cherries you end up with drab mauve colored cherries in a vibrant red syrup. The black sours give up a lot of color to the syrup, but retain a deep maroon that’s much nicer than the color from their red counterparts. I also found that the flavor from the black sours was much richer, complex, and persistent. The blacks are also larger, giving you a nicer cocktail cherry.
After several years of experimenting with different cherry preparations I’ve learned to stick to a few basics that are time honored favorites. The first and most important are cocktail cherries. I make loads of these and give them as presents and host gifts year round. Friends and I actually prefer them to the Luxardo brand cocktail cherries, typically hailed as the pinnacle of cocktail cherry greatness. I also make plenty of cherry jam to use year round. Last year I added “guignolet” to the roster. Guignolet is a French cherry wine that’s made by macerating cherries and cherry leaves in red wine that’s been sweetened and fortified with a neutral spirit or brandy. The spirit keeps it from turning into vinegar and helps prevent oxidation, so it can be stored for a long time. It makes an excellent summer aperitif served chilled or with a little sparking water or champagne.
Perhaps the most unique cherry preparation that I make a point of putting up every year are pickled cherries. The other day a friend asked “Why would you pickle a cherry?”. Clearly she had never had one of my pickled cherries! They’re sweet and sour, spiced with warming spices like black pepper, clove, and allspice, and they are versatile with so many other foods. I make a lot of salumi and other cured meats and they’re the perfect foil for salty, rich meats like those. Probably my favorite use is with pork belly, slow cooked to render the meat and fat silky and unctuous, then blasted with high heat at the end to crisp the skin. They’re incredible with cheeses, and go well with any rich poultry like turkey, duck, guinea fowl, or pheasant. I’ve even served them with beef and incorporated them into sausages. I just love them, and everyone who has tried them is blown away by how unique they are.
One of the nice things about making picked cherries is that they’re easy to make and they last forever if properly processed. I always can mine, using the canning process to infuse the flavor of the spices into them right in the jar while cooking the cherries at the same time. If you’ve never canned before don’t be hesitant to try it. The process is not very complicated, doesn’t necessarily require special equipment (although if you’re canning a lot it can help to have the right tools), and gives you the amazing ability to store your jars at ambient temperature, freeing up valuable refrigerator or freezer space. This is a great beginner canning recipe, and the high amount of acid and sugar makes it very safe to preserve in this manner. That being said, if you prefer to skip the canning part you can simply combine everything in a pot and simmer for ten minutes on the stove, then store in the refrigerator. They’ll last at least a month in the fridge if you are sure to keep them under the brine.
When it comes to the brine it’s good to scale the recipe to make more brine than you think you’ll need. Cherries vary in size and everyone packs their jars differently, so it’s hard to give exact numbers on how much brine is required to top off the jar after it’s been packed with cherries. It’s better to have a little extra than to try to make a tiny amount up at the last second. I add the spices to the bottom of each jar rather than simmering them in the brine, this way you’re guaranteed that every jar has some spice in it. It also lets you vary the flavor a bit while using the same brine if you want. While the recipe here uses warm spices I’ve also enjoyed cherries made with cooling flavors like bay, rosemary, and juniper. Feel free to experiment with other spice combinations to suit your tastes. Spices like cinnamon, coriander, clove, allspice, black pepper, bay, cardamom, ginger, cumin, bay, juniper, and rosemary all go great with cherry.
This recipe makes approximately a dozen jars of pickled cherries. How tightly you pack your jars, the size of your cherries, etc. will determine exactly how many jars you get. I like to leave the pits in the cherries. Not only does it make less work for me while I’m canning, but the pit does contribute some flavor to the cherries. Just remember to warn people that there are pits when you serve them! Feel free to pit yours if you like, but it may affect the amount of brine needed to fill the jars.
6lbs sour cherries, preferable Morello
4 ½ cups cider vinegar
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 cups red wine
4 cups sugar
2 tsp salt
In each pint sized jar:
½ teaspoon each black pepper, allspice, and coriander
1 piece star anise
Wash a dozen pint sized mason jars and place them in a warm (170-200*) oven to stay hot. Sterilize the lids in a pan of hot water, but do not boil them. Have a pot large enough for the jars ready with boiling water. Wash the cherries and pick through to discard any leaves or debris. You can leave the stems on if you wish, but they’re easier to get into the jars without stems. In a large saucepan combine the vinegars, wine, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil. Meanwhile add the spices to each jar then top with the cherries, packing them in tight without crushing them. Be sure to keep the cherries below the bottom ridge of the threads on the jar, so that you have enough room to cover them with brine. Once the brine is boiling carefully fill the jars with brine, leaving approximately half an inch of “headspace” at the top of the jar. It’s okay if a cherry here and there floats to the top. Wipe the rims of the jars, cover them with the lids, and put the bands on, tightening them with your fingertips until just tight. Place the jars into the boiling water bath and wait until it returns to a boil. Once it’s vigorously boiling again start a timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes remove jars from the water bath and place them on a sheet pan to cool. As they cool you’ll hear the lids “ping” from the seal being formed. Once they’re all cool check the jars for any that haven’t sealed and place them into the refrigerator. The sealed jars will keep on a shelf in a cool, dark place for at least a year.
Alternately, place all the ingredients into a large saucepan and simmer for ten minutes. Let cool then refrigerate.