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Life: It truly is a bowl of cherries

By: Elan Head

July 7, 2007

In my last column, I promised to say more about my current line of work, drying cherries.

By the time you read this, cherries will be at the peak of their season, as cheap and accessible as they will be all year ó which is to say, not very.

Why are cherries so ridiculously expensive? Well, thereís a long answer (labor and transportation costs, bird and weather losses, etc.) and a short one: someone has to pay for all of my jet fuel.

About a month ago a friend called to ask if Iíd be interested in flying an old UH-1B on a cherry-drying contract in Washington state.

Since every helicopter pilot wants to fly a Huey at some point in his or her career, I didnít hesitate to say yes.

Of course, the prospect of all the sweet, ripe cherries I could eat had some bearing on my decision as well.

Cherry drying, as it turns out, is a well-established niche in the helicopter industry.

Past a certain point in their development (the appearance of a depression near the stem end of the fruit), cherries become extremely susceptible to water damage, particularly if theyíve been chemically treated to assist with ripening.

Rainwater will collect in the cherries at their stems, seeping into the fruit and causing them to swell and split.     

So, after a rain, cherry growers will work furiously to dry off their orchards, both with ground blowers and helicopters, which dry off the trees with their rotor wash.

Who knew?

The cherries Iíve been drying arenít ripe yet, but Iíve been sampling widely from other orchards.

Around here, cherries really are cheap and abundant: even a helicopter pilot can afford to stock up on them.

Among other varieties, Iíve come to appreciate the yellow-and-blush-colored Rainiers, which are almost always bruised beyond recognition by the time they make it to the grocery store.

Fresh off the tree, these gorgeous cherries are absolutely incredible ó the Platonic ideal of fruit.

I donít think thereís a better way to eat sweet cherries than fresh, by the handful.

But on those rare occasions when I do cook them, I usually combine them with apricots, which come into season around the same time.

Last week, I stopped by a fruit stand that sold apricots, organic Rainiers and local walnuts. Hereís the recipe for the apricot-cherry crisp I made the next day.

First, make the topping: finely chop 1 cup of walnuts by hand or in a food processor.

If using a food processor, add 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed; 1/2 cup flour; 3/4 cup packed brown sugar; and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Pulse to combine.

If making the topping by hand, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse cornmeal (some larger pieces are OK). Then stir in the remaining ingredients to combine.

Butter a large baking dish. Toss together 6 cups pitted, quartered apricots; 4 cups pitted, halved cherries (any variety); 1/2 cup sugar; 1/2 teaspoon ginger; 2 tablespoons minute tapioca; and a pinch of salt.

Pat a thin layer of topping on the bottom of the baking dish. Cover with the fruit, then spread the remaining topping over the fruit.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and set on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.

Remove the foil and continue baking until the topping is crisp and the fruit is bubbling, another 20 minutes or so. (If the topping is browning too quickly, replace the foil loosely.)

Serve with vanilla or ginger ice cream, fresh whipped cream, or sour cream sweetened with brown sugar.

Be grateful you canít taste the jet fuel.


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