Food & Drink

Fresh cherries in late August? Record crop brings sweet bonanza

Baked French toast with Cherry-Berry Breakfast Topping is perfect for Sunday brunch.
Baked French toast with Cherry-Berry Breakfast Topping is perfect for Sunday brunch. Northwest Cherry Growers

Long after they’re usually all gone, fresh ripe cherries are still rolling into local supermarkets and selling at bargain prices. This sweet August windfall can be traced to weird weather in the Pacific Northwest.

What started as a challenging season turned into a bonanza for cherry lovers. Washington and neighboring sweet cherry states had the coldest winter since 1985, delaying the start of cherry season for two to three weeks.

But once weather warmed up, Northwest cherry orchards went into overdrive, producing bountiful blooms and what looks like a record cherry crop.

What’s more, the delayed start pushed cherry season well into late summer. Unlike 2016 when fresh Northwest cherries were scarce by July 31, there should be good availability through the end of August.

Cherry growers have worked hard to stretch out their season, notes the Northwest Cherry Growers, which represents farmers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah. In past years, a big crop could mean a glut of cherries all at once, usually in early or mid-July.

“A lot of risk and investment by our growers throughout the five states allow for different orchards to be picked at different times as the summer progresses,” said James Michael of the Northwest Cherry Growers.

This year’s Northwest cherry crop is expected to top the all-time record of 23.2 million boxes, set in 2014. According to industry sources, many growers estimate their crops will be 15 to 25 percent larger than 2016. Last season totaled 20.97 million boxes, the region’s third largest crop ever.

Dominating this cherry avalanche is the ever-popular Bing, the No. 1 cherry in North America. Golden Rainier cherries also are in great supply. Other late-season cherries from the Northwest include Lapin, Skeena and Sweethearts.

To keep those cherries fresh, store them unwashed in a tightly sealed plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. They’ll stay firm for at least two weeks. Then, rinse just before eating or using in recipes.

Cherries also can be frozen for later, with or without pits and stems. In a colander, rinse whole cherries and then spread them on a dish towel to remove excess moisture. Then, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until solid. Once frozen, the cherries can be transferred to plastic freezer bags or sealed containers. They’ll keep in the freezer for a year.

The same technique can be used to freeze pitted or halved cherries; no extra sugar necessary. (Pre-pitting does make their later use in recipes easier.)

What to do with all those cherries? The growers have plenty of recipe ideas at including this baked French toast with cherry-berry topping and savory cherry bruschetta.

These bonus cherries will make a sweet and unexpected end-of-summer treat.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Pitting made easy

The problem with cherries? The pits! They can be a pain to remove – especially when working with large quantities. That’s when a cherry pitter comes in handy.

From Chef’n, the QuickPit cherry pitter ($9.99 suggested retail) makes pitting cherries fast and easy. Drop a cherry into the slot, pull the trigger and out pops the pit. (Do this over a bowl or trash bag.) All plastic, this pitter is lightweight and dishwasher safe. It has no sharp edges and can be used with just one hand. Even kids can pit cherries with this nifty device.

Find it at Kohl’s, Amazon and other retailers as well as direct from Chef’n.

– Debbie Arrington

Baked French toast with cherry-berry breakfast topping

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1-1/2 cups milk

6 eggs

1/3 cup maple syrup

3 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

1/8 teaspoon salt

8 slices (4-1/2- by 3-1/2- by 1/2-inch) French bread

3 cups pitted fresh sweet cherries, halved

1 cup blackberries or boysenberries

1/2 cup orange juice

Vanilla yogurt

Combine milk, eggs, maple syrup, 2 tablespoons sugar, orange peel, and salt; mix well.

Pour half of mixture into each of two 9-inch square baking dishes. Dip both sides of each slice of bread in milk mixture; arrange in the same baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Marinate cherries in orange juice and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar overnight.

Carefully transfer slices to a nonstick, buttered baking sheet using a large spatula; allow excess liquid to drip into pan used for soaking.

Bake in a preheated 400 degrees F. oven 15 to 18 minutes; turn slices over halfway through baking time.

Add berries to cherry mixture. Top each slice with 1/2 cup cherry-berry mix and a dollop of vanilla yogurt. Serve immediately.

Recipe adapted from Northwest Cherry Growers

Cherry bruschetta

Makes 18 appetizers.

18 slices (1/2-inch thick) small baguette-style bread

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1-1/2 cups pitted fresh sweet cherries, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup each chopped cilantro and diced yellow sweet pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon grated lime peel

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh basil

Toast one side of baguette slices at 350 degrees F. 5 minutes. Turn slices, brush with olive oil and bake 5 minutes longer.

Combine cherries, cilantro, pepper, green onions, lime juice, lime peel, salt, pepper, and remaining olive oil; mix well. Top each slice of baguette with a thin slice of fresh mozzarella cheese, a heaping tablespoon of cherry mixture and sliced basil. Serve warm or cold.

Recipe adapted from Northwest Cherry Growers