Cherries appear in different cultures where the promise of spring is heralded by the glory of a cherry tree in blossom. The Japanese are perhaps the most famous for honouring the cherry, as they picnic joyously under the bountiful blossoms. That tradition is one of the more significant seasonal observations made by a large population anywhere around the world. Here in New Zealand, we mark the arrival of the cherry blossom season with a grand parade in Alexandra.
The first cherries, harvested in Hawke’s Bay, arrived in late November. They were sweet, soft, light-red fruit and best eaten fresh, because like most cherries, they did not keep well. As the cherry season progresses – a period of eight to 10 weeks that passes all too swiftly – later crops of more sturdy varieties arrive.
Cherries are grown in Nelson, Marlborough and, of course, Central Otago, and this region’s large crop is exported around the world. The most prized cherries tend to be crisp and dark, with intensely coloured juices that stain everything in sight, including lips and teeth. Although they’re fabulous eaten fresh, the firm flesh of the later varieties makes them ideal for cooking, too.
Don’t overlook the white varieties. Slightly misnamed, white cherries have pale-yellow and coral-coloured skin and sweet yellow flesh, and they are just as delicious as their darker counterparts. Any time you’re invited somewhere special in the next few weeks and you want to take a gift that will be truly appreciated, consider cherries. They are available in 1kg or 2kg boxes from all good supermarkets and specialty fruit and vegetable stores. Many growers also sell cherries online.
When cooking with cherries, it is worth removing the stones. Cutting each cherry in half is quite a task, but a cherry stoner can make the job easier. This nifty gadget punches through the fruit, pushing the stone out the bottom. Jane Grigson, one of my all-time favourite food writers, suggests in her Fruit Book that stoning cherries “is a trying business, so avoid pampering your family as half the fun of a cherry pie is putting the stones on the side of the plate and counting them out”.
Cherries go well in both sweet and savoury dishes. I immediately think “duck” when I see fresh cherries, and if I want a sweet dish, some form of chocolate makes the perfect partner.
DUCK BREASTS WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR, ORANGE AND FRESH CHERRIES
- 4 boned duck breasts
- 1 tsp salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp butter
- a scant tbsp flour
- 300ml chicken stock
- 150ml red wine
- grated zest and juice of 1 orange
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 20 cherries, stoned and halved
Trim excess flaps of fat from each duck breast, then use a sharp knife to score the skin in a diamond pattern. Season generously with salt and pepper. Place the breasts, skin-side down, in a heavy-based frying pan over a moderate heat. Adding oil to the pan is unnecessary, as the fat will immediately start to run from the duck. Reduce the heat to low and let the duck cook gently for 10-12 minutes. Once the skin is crisp and golden, turn the breasts over and cook on the meaty side for 2 minutes until nicely rare. Remove from the pan, cover and rest the breasts in a warm place for at least 5 minutes before serving. There will be at least a cup of fat in the pan, so store this in a container and refrigerate when cool. Duck fat can be used to roast potatoes; it will keep for months in the fridge.
To make the sauce, put the onion and butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Cook gently until the onion is soft and golden, then stir in the flour and cook until it turns golden. Add the stock, wine, zest and juice and stir until it comes to the boil. Simmer the sauce for at least 10 minutes until it reduces and becomes syrupy. Add the vinegar and cherries and cook for a minute. To serve, place each duck breast on a heated plate and pour over the sauce and cherries. Serve with steamed baby new potatoes and blanched baby green beans, garnished with a little chopped parsley.
Wine match: Central Otago pinot noir.
FRESH CHERRY AND CHOCOLATE SHORTCAKE
- 240g flour
- 180g ice-cold butter, cut into chunks
- 60g icing sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- few drops of pure vanilla essence
- 250g mascarpone
- 100g crème fraîche
- 30g grated chocolate
- 750g cherries, pitted
- 200g redcurrant jelly
- 3 tbsp water
To make the base, place the flour, butter and icing sugar in a food processor, then pulse until the mixture becomes like fine crumbs. Add the yolks and vanilla and pulse until the pastry forms a ball. Place on a floured bench and knead lightly for a few seconds until smooth. Rest it for about 10 minutes. Roll out the pastry to fit a 22cm round tin or a 35x25cm oblong tart tin with a removeable base. Let the pastry rest for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Prick the shortcake all over and bake until golden and crisp – 25-30 minutes. Cool.
To make the topping, beat the mascarpone and crème fraîche together. Fold in the grated chocolate, then spread evenly over the shortcake. Arrange the cherries in neat rows on the top. Gently combine the jelly and water, beating until the jelly is melted and smooth. Using a pastry brush, cover the cherries with the jelly glaze. The base can be made a day ahead and the dessert assembled several hours before serving.
Wine match: kirsch or crème de cacao
Cherries from www.freshmax.co.nz.
Food-themed Christmas gifts
Looking for some last-minute Christmas gift ideas? Here are a few suggestions:
- A bottle of artisan New Zealand extra virgin olive oil. Oils pressed with lime or lemon are handy for summer salads or for dressing up fish or chicken. And scented fruit or wine vinegar will add another flavour dimension to salad dressings.
- An assortment of high-quality crackers and cheese – always handy for holiday snacks.
- A restaurant voucher – good for post-Christmas dining.
- Ready-to-use salad dressings or chutneys. My favourites are chef Peter Gordon’s avocado oil dressing or his chunky fig, walnut and whiskey chutney, made by Sabato (www.sabato.co.nz).
- A bottle of bubbly – preferably real champagne. Or spritz up festivities by adding a touch of Italian style with my favourite Villa Marcello prosecco from www.prodigal-daughter.com.
- An assortment of dried fruit and nuts, packaged in cellophane and tied with a pretty ribbon. Convert a pick-and-mix selection from the supermarket into a stunning parcel.
- Beautiful linen or pure cotton tea towels are always welcome.
- A small kitchen tool such as a cherry stoner, garlic crusher, sharp paring knife or anything from the well-designed and user-friendly Oxo Food-themed Christmas gifts range.