Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Cherries good for more than pie, no lie

When you hear the name George Washington, whatís the first thing that comes to mind?

If youíre like me, itís two words: cherry tree.

The idea of a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, then confessing his sin to his father with the words, ďI cannot tell a lie,Ē is something that was drilled into most of our heads at an early ageó specifically, the first time we were caught covering up our own misdeeds.

By now, you may know that this story is apocryphal (a nice way of saying ďa lieĒ).

It comes from an early biography of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, whose original version I looked up last week.

Itís a charming story, but awfully florid. I can imagine 19th-century children hearing it and rolling their eyes (but maybe thatís my 21st-century cynicism talking).

In any event, it got me thinking about cherries, which have always been a favorite of mine. When I was growing up, I would routinely make myself ill by gorging on fresh cherries.

Actually, I still do.

I donít regret it. Ripe, sweet cherries are one of natureís miracles, and I look forward to the day when I can have my own trees (theyíre hard to swing in the desert, particularly in an apartment).

In recent weeks, Iíve noticed fresh Bing cherries making infrequent, expensive appearances in local grocery stores.

Theyíre too far ahead of their natural season to tempt me, but they are a happy reminder of stomach aches to come.

In time for Presidentsí Day, I decided to investigate out-of-season cherry opportunities in the Kyrene Corridor.

Basically, your options are two: frozen and canned. (Well, there are also dried cherries, a great product for snacking and baking, but very different from plump, juicy cherries in their prime.)

In the past, on the advice of Cookís Illustrated magazine, Iíve used jarred sour cherries from Trader Joeís. Drained, sweetened and perked up with red wine (really!), they make great pies and cobblers.

We wonít even mention the gloppy cherry pie filling that comes in cans (though in the interest of full disclosure, Iíll admit that I loved the stuff as a kid).

Though sweet cherries like Bings are delicious for eating out of hand, sour cherries are superior by far for baking. Their bracing acidity gives pies and cobblers terrific cherry flavor, whereas sweet cherries, when heated, turn blah.

Iím lucky in having a mother-in-law with a sour cherry tree, so I often have her sour cherries in my freezer. Hers, at least, freeze phenomenally well, but Iíve been unable to find frozen sour cherries commercially.

Yet itís not hard to find frozen sweet cherries. In the interest of experimentation, I picked up a couple of bags of the first organic brand I came across.

Eaten frozen, right out of the bag, the cherries had a promising flavor. I thought Iíd simmer them with a small amount of water and sugar to make a sauce for ricotta mousse (ricotta whipped in a blender with sugar and vanillaósimple and delicious).

But after bubbling for a minute or two, the cherries turned bland and mushy. It took more sugar and some balsamic vinegar to return them to edibility. Even then, they werenít fantastic.

So I changed course. I thawed half a cup of frozen cherries, reserving their liquid, and pureed them in the food processor.

Then I added half a cup of ricotta cheese, a few tablespoons of sugar, a drop of vanilla and enough of the reserved cherry liquid to finesse the consistency.

The result was a creamy mousse like cherry cheesecake in a bowl. Itís good chilled, and I suspect it would be good frozen, too.

But I cannot tell a lie. Iím counting the days until fresh cherries are back in circulation.

Happy Presidentsí Day. And P.S.: Thank you, George.

Elan Head writes regularly about food in the Kyrene Corridor.