By Craig Kahlke
When we think of our Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations, barbecues, swimming, fireworks, and patriotism are the first items that come to mind for many. Celebrating our nation’s independence with family and close friends always includes great food. While a good deal of what is consumed on this holiday weekend may not be considered healthy, there is an excellent-tasting, nutritious, versatile fruit that is locally grown right here in Upstate NY. I’m talking about sweet cherries!
Harvest of some of the earliest sweet cherry varieties of the season usually begins the third or last week of June for inland sites in Western & Central NY. These same varieties close to the shores of the Lake Ontario are becoming ready to pick just in time for the holiday. Add mid and late season varieties and special packaging that extends shelf life without compromising flavor or nutrition, and sweet cherries can be available at least through July and sometimes well into the month of August in some locations.
Local fresh-picked sweet cherries in a “normal” season are usually available for about 5-6 weeks. But what is normal? Excessive and untimely rain is one of a sweet cherry grower’s biggest nightmares. Cherries are prone to rain-cracking- in which the fruit absorbs moisture from the precipitation – causing them to partially burst or crack, rendering them useless for harvest. A cherry crop can look excellent just days prior to harvest, but as little as ½ inch of rain the day or evening prior to harvest can crack a large percentage of susceptible varieties. Farmers in the Northeast try to plant cultivars that are less prone to cracking, but all sweet cherries are prone to some degree of cracking.
NUTRTIONAL INFO/HEALTH BENEFITS
Sweet cherries are high in vitamin C and fiber. Cherries are an extremely low fat food, contain no sodium, and one cup of sweet cherries is only 74 calories. In addition to the vitamin and mineral nutrition, cherries contain several key phytonutrients such as carotenoids, quercetin, and anthocyanins. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant that is a contributor to red pigments in apples and red onions. In addition to attacking free radicals that are trying do damage our cells, quercetin also has been shown to have anti-cancer effects in laboratory studies. It may also help in allergy relief, as it acts as an anti-inflammatory. Anthocyanins are the compounds which most give the cherries their red color. The carotenoids, which include lutein and zeaxanthin, are also strong antioxidants. In addition, studies have shown that anthocyanins help ease pain from inflammation, arthritis and gout.
Cherries store best uncovered in the coldest part of the refrigerator. When kept refrigerated, fresh cherries can keep for up to 10 days. Avoid storing cherries near other food items that have a strong odor. This may affect the taste of your cherries. Rinse them under cold water only when you are ready to use or eat them. Remove rotten cherries immediately in order to preserve the rest of your bag or container.
Cherries don’t have to disappear from your radar screen soon after harvest. There are several methods for freezing cherries, but here is a quick one.
1. Examine the fresh sweet cherries, discarding any that are bruised, split, rotted or blemished. Leave the stems and pits in the cherries.
2. Put the fruit in a strainer and run cold water over them.
3 Allow the cherries to drain dry in the strainer. You can also put the washed berries on a clean, dry towel to air dry.
4 Place the sweet cherries on a shallow baking pan in a single layer, and put it in the freezer.
5 Remove from the freezer when frozen and place the cherries in a zip lock bag. Squeeze the air out of the bag, close and return to freezer. They may keep for up to one year.
So, what are you waiting for? Visit your local farmer’s market, or better yet, search out a pick-your-own sweet cherry farm in your region. Many newer plantings of sweet cherries are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks, so most of the tree can be picked from the ground, without the need for ladders. Locally grown produce is riper, flavorful, nutritious, and less expensive in many cases than produce that is grown elsewhere. This may especially be true this season, with high fuel prices expected to raise the cost of produce trucked in from the west coast, Florida, and other long-distance locations. In addition, buying local supports and sustains your local farms.
For more agriculture and nutrition information, call your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office. Go to http://cce.cornell.edu to find your local office.
The series is written by Craig Kahlke and Robert Hadad, both of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Kahlke works in fruit quality management for Cornell’s Lake Ontario Fruit Program. Hadad is a fresh market specialist with the Cornell Vegetable Program.
Building Strong and Vibrant New York Communities
Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities. NYS College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, NYS College of Human Ecology, and NYS College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, Cooperative Extension associations, county governing bodies, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating.
Chicken Salad with Cherries and Goat-Cheese Dressing
From http://desertculinary.blogspot.com (Adapted from Everyday Food)
2 ounces crumbled fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons white-wine vinegar
salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
16 ounces chicken cutlets
1 large head Boston lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
2 cup sweet cherries, pitted and halved
1/3 cup chopped walnuts, toasted walnut pieces
In a small bowl, whisk together goat cheese, sour cream, chives, water and vinegar – season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place chicken into the skillet, working in batches if needed, and cook until opaque throughout, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove and place on a cutting board to rest for 5 minutes. Thinly slice chicken crosswise.
Divide lettuce between four plates – evenly top with the cooked chicken, cherries and walnuts. Serve with dressing alongside.
Makes 4 servings