Written and photographed by Melissa Pasanen
You’ve picked your own berries and apples, but there’s another compelling tree fruit you can harvest yourself this summer at several orchards around the state. Sour cherries glow a translucent true cherry-red among the branches and make for festive picking. Although too tart for most to eat out of hand, they cook up into fantastic pies, cobblers and crisps and go beautifully with rich meats like pork and duck. At Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset, pick-your-own season comes with bonus views of the Taconic Range from the 75-year-old fruit orchard where Tom and Sylvia Smith tend about 50 sour cherry trees, including the classic Montmorency and, newer to the United States, a sweeter variety called Balaton.
Sour cherries this year in Vermont will start ripening at the end of June and go through mid to late July depending on location. Many orchards offer email newsletter updates or check out their websites listed below:
- Burtt’s, Cabot, burttsappleorchard.com
- Champlain Orchards, Shoreham, champlainorchards.com
- Mad Tom Orchard, East Dorset, madtomorchard.com
- Shelburne Orchards, shelburneorchards.com
Here are a few sour cherry recipes, savory to sweet, with a bonus recipe that you can make without pitting the cherries. Also, a pitting tip: If you don’t own a cherry pitter (one of those ridiculous one-use items only culinary obsessives like me own), try using a paper clip, unfolded from the center and hooking the pit out with one of the curved pointy ends.
Sour cherry recipes, first the savory, then the sweet:
Middle Eastern Lamb Meatballs With Cinnamon and Cherries
Adapted from “Good Meat” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2010) by Putney food writer, teacher and author Deborah Krasner who, in turn, adapted it from Ghille Basan’s “The Middle Eastern Kitchen.” Sour cherries are best for this recipe, Krasner writes, but if you only have sweet ones, add the juice and zest of one lemon to the sauce to make the flavors more complex. Serves 4 over rice. Wilted spinach with yogurt and a light grating of nutmeg makes a nice side dish.
For the meatballs:
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ tsp coarse salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup fresh pitted sour cherries, dried sour cherries soaked overnight, or Morello cherries in syrup, drained
If using fresh or dried sour cherries:
¼ cup water
1–2 tablespoons sugar
Using a food processor fitted with the steel blade, process the meat and cinnamon, cumin, cloves and salt to make a paste. Wet hands and roll walnut-sized knobs of meat paste into balls about an inch and a half in diameter. Film the base of a large frying pan with oil until thinned and fragrant. Brown the meatballs on all sides, shaking the pan vigorously every so often to prevent sticking, about 5–7 minutes in all.
Set browned meatballs aside. Pour off most of the fat and add butter to the frying pan. Set the pan over low heat. Add the cherries and toss them with the melted butter. Add the water to cook them further without burning. Crush the cherries with the back of a spoon or potato masher, and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a simmer. Return the meatballs to the pan and simmer slowly for about 15 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through and the sauce is slightly caramelized.
Roast Duck Legs With Sour Cherry Sauce
Adapted from “Cooking With Shelburne Farms” (Viking, 2007) by Melissa Pasanen with Rick Gencarelli.
The duck legs need a minimum cure of two hours and will be most delicious and crisp if you have time to cure them overnight. Leaving them uncovered in the fridge dries out the skin for a much crisper result — and who doesn’t appreciate that? People are most familiar with duck legs prepared confit-style, submerged in fat and cooked very slowly. This recipe, while also rich, will yield a different and slightly drier texture. If you miss the short window for fresh sour cherries, look for frozen or canned Montmorency cherries in the supermarket. Dried cherries also work, but be sure to buy the unsweetened kind, found most easily at natural foods markets. Serves 4.
Note: the sauce would also make a delicious complement to grilled pork or chicken.
2 medium oranges, washed well
2 teaspoons whole fennel seed
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 large duck legs, about 3½–4 pounds total
1 cup pitted fresh, thawed frozen, or canned sour cherries or ¾ cup dried unsweetened sour cherries
½ cup orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup chicken stock, preferably low sodium
Freshly ground black pepper
Preferably the night before and at least 2 hours before cooking, prepare the rub. Zest both oranges to yield 4 teaspoons finely grated orange zest, making sure to avoid the bitter white pith. Wrap the zested oranges tightly in plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out and put them and 2 teaspoons of the zest in the refrigerator. Finely grind the fennel seed with the salt and sugar in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and then grind in the garlic and 2 teaspoons of the orange zest. Rub the mixture all over the duck legs and cure them overnight in the refrigerator uncovered.
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Squeeze ½ cup juice from the previously zested oranges into a small bowl and set aside or, if using dried cherries, stir in the orange liqueur, add the dried cherries and set aside. Set the cured duck legs on a rack in a shallow roasting pan skin side up and roast until the skin is crisp, dark golden-brown and the meat is very tender, 2¼–2½ hours, depending on the size of the legs. (Turn the leg over and stick a sharp knife in the flesh. If the flesh still grabs the knife, the meat has not reached optimal tenderness.) About halfway through cooking, carefully pour off the fat from the roasting pan and discard or keep for another use.
When the duck has about 15 minutes to go, make the sauce. In a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, about 4–5 minutes, until they start to turn golden. Add the cherries with the orange juice and orange liqueur. Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons orange zest and the stock. Increase the heat and simmer until reduced by half, about 8–10 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve a duck leg per person with sauce.
Allenholm Orchard’s Sour Cherry Pie
Adapted from Pam and Ray Allen
For the crust:
2¾ cup flour
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
¼ cup cold milk, plus one tablespoon to brush top of pie
For the filling:
4 cups pitted sour cherries (about 1 quart)
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
⅓ cup flour
¼ teaspoon almond extract
In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt. With fingers, blend half of the vegetable shortening into the flour mixture until it is thoroughly distributed and the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the rest of the shortening and mix with fingers again, but only until the mixture can be pulled into a cohesive ball. Important: you should still be able to see some streaks of shortening. Pat into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap or place in a covered container, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 F. In a large bowl, mix all filling ingredients together. Divide dough in half and roll out bottom pie crust. Place in pie pan. Pour in filling. Roll out top pie crust. If using decorative cutout, punch out now. Brush edge of bottom pie crust with water and lay top pie crust over filling. Seal edges and crimp. Cut air vents if no decorative cutout. Brush top of crust with milk. Bake for 45-60 minutes, checking crust, and covering if necessary, until crust is golden-brown and filling bubbly. Makes one 9- or 10-inch pie.
Adapted by Alison Lane of Mirabelles Café and Bakery from “Chez Panisse Fruit” (HarperCollins, 2002) by Alice Waters.
Pack a quart jar full of cherries, pitted or not. Leave the stems on if you like. Then pour in 1 cup of sugar and fill with brandy. Close tightly. For the first week, turn the jar upside down every other day. The cherries will be good in about a week but will improve over the next few weeks. They should be refrigerated after a month. These are lovely served over ice cream or a simple panna cotta. The brandy also makes a nice base for a fun cocktail (maybe with Sumptuous Syrups sour cherry syrup) and prosecco topped with a couple of the cherries. Cheers to sour cherries!