Photo by Sally Schneider>
Laziness and exhaustion are the motivations behind many of my culinary improvisations; the desperate need to make something good as quickly as possible causes me flaunt notions I'd previously held sacred. In past cherry seasons, for example, I'd painstakingly pit pounds of cherries to make a warm stew to spill onto vanilla ice cream or crème fraîche for me and my friends. It's akin to the inside of a cherry pie, and is magic because it is rare: few people seem to remember that fresh cherries are divine cooked quickly in a saucepan with sugar and a squeeze of lemon, and fewer are willing to pit them.
Then, the other evening, I arrived late for an impromptu collaborative dinner with friends, bearing fresh cherries for our dessert. Josh, who was masterminding the dinner and as tired from the day as I was, looked at my big bag of cherries with their leafy stems. The reality of the cherry dish hit us both at the same time. "We've got to pit these, right, Sal?" he asked.
"Yeaaaa...," I said uncertainly, daunted by the relatively easy job of pitting cherries. "No, wait. Let's just do them unpitted, stems and all and see how they are. How bad can they be?"
So we did, tossing the cherries as-is into a pan with some sugar, and made an almost-instant dessert whose pits and stems added an unexpected measure of delight. You picked a cherry up by the stem with your fingers, dunked it in crème fraîche, and popped it in your mouth, working the fragrant flesh off the pit and stem. We dropped the spent leaves, pits and stems into little bowls set around the table, as you would olives pits or mussel shells. We ate the sublimely messy, almost primal dessert like children, savoring the cherries one-by-one and licking our fingers.
Throughout cherry season, Warm Fresh Cherries and Leaves, born out of desperation and desire, is the dessert we make on purpose now because it's even BETTER than the original, "kempt" version.
Warm Fresh Cherries (with Leaves)
You can make this dish with either sweet or sour cherries, adjusting the sugar upward for sour ones, and cooking down their abundant juices as necessary.
Photo by Sally Schneider
• About 1 ¼ pounds fresh sweet or sour cherries, washed and drained
• About 3 tablespoons sugar or honey for sweet cherries; ¼ to 1/3 cup for sour ones
• 2 tablespoons water
• 1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out with a paring knife
• A few teaspoons fresh lemon juice, to taste (optional)
• 1 pint premium vanilla ice cream or about 1 cup crème fraîche or whipped cream
In a medium saucepan, combine the cherries, sugar and water; add the bean seeds and pod. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the cherries begin to release their juices, about 2 minutes.
Uncover and cook over high heat until the cherries are tender and some are split, about 2 minutes longer. (Sour cherries will release a lot of juices. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the cherries into a medium bowl, leaving the juices in the pan. Boil the juices until they are syrupy. Then, toss the cherries back into the syrup.)
Taste and add lemon juice if necessary to brighten the flavor. Let the cherries cool a few minutes. Serve right from the pan or pour into a large serving bowl.
Spoon some of the cherries into 4 shallow soup bowls. Spoon ice cream or crème fraîche alongside. Place empty bowls around the table to catch the leaves, pits and stems.
Note: If you prefer to serve the cherries pitted, there are several well-designed cherry pitters available that can pit a pound of cherries in just a few minutes, from simple hand-held pitters to more elaborate plunger-and-chute models. When caught without a cherry pitter, I've found it is easy to pit cherries the same way I pit olives: by smashing them lightly with a can or jar. The flesh breaks open so the cherry is no longer a neat shape, but it makes the pit is easy to take out. Place the cherries in a metal baking dish with at least 2" sides when you are doing this, to prevent the juice from squirting on your clothes. Alternatively, cover them with a paper towels to catch the spray.