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An Abundance of Cherries: 5 Recipes

Cherries ripening 10 days ago. (Josh Thomas)

Cherries ripening 10 days ago. (All photos by Josh Thomas)

I am just indoors after picking three quarts of cherries in about ten minutes.

I have two trees laden with them. To me they’re fun to pick, because my fingers don’t know where to reach next; here here here here? They’re everywhere, the very definition of abundance.

These are sour cherries, planted by a previous homeowner for their springtime blossoms. But the fruit is good to eat.

Last year a late frost killed off the fruit after the trees had bloomed. The birds and I went hungry. Not this year; I’m baking up a storm. And I have so many, most will go into the freezer to enjoy the rest of the year. (Wash ’em, bag ’em, throw ’em in there.)

Free food!

Now the minute you start telling yourself there’s nothing more tedious than pitting a bunch of cherries, I’ll get in your face: it’s easy when you know how, and it’s relaxing, a mindless, hypnotic activity with fabulous results. Wear an old shirt (or none), grab yourself some iced tea or a cocktail, take your cherries and a couple of bowls to the side porch out of the sun, and enjoy yourself, dreaming about all the great food you’ll make.

There are lots of old wives’ tales about how to pit cherries; I’ve tried them all – a plastic straw, a Chinese chopstick, a paring knife. Old wives say the pits are easier to get when you pierce the fruit from the bottom.

Nonsense: use your thumb, it’s why God gave you fingernails. Pierce the top, because the seed grows right underneath it.

Put on some beach music, you’ll be done in ten minutes – so you might as well have another cocktail!

And if this puts you in mind of how much your life is like your Grandma’s, because you remember sitting out in her back yard as a kid peeling strings off green beans, well, good for you – because you loved your Grandma, her green beans were great – and they tasted better since she grew them herself and you helped.

City people think they’re hot stuff when they go to the farmers’ market and buy green beans for $2.50 a pound – “So fresh!” they exclaim – but I secretly pity them. Produce from your own yard is fresher than the farmers’ market. Grandma grew a mess of beans from a 19¢ packet of seeds and a few sticks, then silently congratulated herself for roping the kids into helping her on a summer day.

Yes, we have the internet now, 200 TV channels, smartphones and stringless beans, but life is still better in the country. I don’t need to get in the car or hop a bus to find a farmers’ market, I just walk outside and start picking.++

Cherry muffins, June 15, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Cherry muffins, June 15, 2013

Josh’s Cherry Muffins

2 C flour
1 C pitted cherries
1 egg
3/4 C sugar
1 C milk
2 t baking powder
1/4 C oil
1/2 t salt
2 t flour for cherries
1/2 t almond extract (can substitute vanilla)

Oven to 375 degrees F. Oil muffin pan or use paper liners. In medium bowl mix 2 C flour, egg, milk, oil, sugar, baking powder, salt and extract just until flour is moistened; don’t overstir, batter should be lumpy. Put cherries in a jar with a lid; add 2 t flour and shake to coat. Fold cherries into batter, just until cherries are covered; spoon into muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown; test with toothpick inserted into center. Makes 6 jumbo or 12 regular muffins.

Cherries ripening, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Cherries ripening, 2013

Cherries are ready to pick when they’re red all over – but at their ripest, they’re a little darker than the brightest color; cherry red, not fire engine. The riper, the sweeter – but the longer you let them go, the more likely the birds are to beat you to them. The good news, as this photo illustrates, is that they don’t all ripen the same day. The best strategy is to pick what you can get every day, just like homegrown strawberries.

Cherry Sauce

3/4 C sugar
2⁄3 C cornstarch
Dash of salt
2 C pitted sour cherries, fresh or frozen
1⁄16 t almond extract or pinch of cinnamon

In medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt. Add cherries and almond flavoring or cinnamon if desired. Slowly bring to a simmer, and continue simmering until the filling is clear.

– Rosemary Perry-Hessong
Journal and Courier

Josh’s Cherry Cheese Coffeecake

2 cans refrigerated crescent rolls
1-2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
1 C sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 egg
1 egg white
~ 2 C cherries

1/2 C confectioner’s sugar
1 T milk
1/2 t vanilla extract

Oven to 350 degrees F. Oil 13×9 baking pan. Spread a pack of crescent rolls in the pan – the package consists of two rectangles cut into triangles, so lay the two rectangles end to end – and pinch all creases together so the pastry is smooth.

With electric mixer, beat cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and whole egg together until smooth. Spread over crescent rolls evenly, top completely with cherries, then lay the second pack of crescent rolls on top and brush with egg white. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden brown. Cool 20 minutes, then drizzle on glaze.

NOTES: Rich to the point of decadence. Save money and calories by using 1 eight ounce and 1 three ounce package of cream cheese (lite is fine) or just 1 eight ounce package; it still tastes great. If using less cream cheese, cut sugar to 1/2 C for 8 ounces of cheese or 3/4 C sugar to 11 ounces. The cherries themselves don’t need added sugar; you want the contrast between a sweet ingredient and the tart cherries.

Josh’s Cherry Cobbler

Oven to 400 degrees F.

1st layer: melt 2 T butter in 9×9 pan.

2nd layer: 2 C pitted cherries or pie filling

3rd layer: Mix 3/4 C sugar, 3/4 C flour, 1/2 C milk, 1 t baking powder, pinch of salt; pour over cherries. Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with milk (Grandma’s way) or ice cream.

Cherry Cheese Bars

1/2 C butter-flavored shortening
2 C pitted cherries or pie filling
1 1/4 C flour
2 8-ounce packages lite cream cheese
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
2 t vanilla extract
2/3 C sugar
(1/2 C chopped almonds or walnuts)

Oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 13×9 pan with butter-flavored shortening.

Mix flour and brown sugar; cut in shortening. (Add nuts.) Reserve 1/2 C of crumbs; press remainder into bottom of pan and bake 12 minutes.

Beat cream cheese, white sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Spread on crust and bake 15 minutes.

Spread cherries over cheese; top with reserved crumbs and bake 15 minutes.

Refrigerate; cut into 2″x1″ bars. Makes 36.

Almost ripe (Josh Thomas)

This year the birds seem to be waiting for all the fruit to ripen, then they’ll gorge themselves and strip my trees bare. The fact that the fruits ripen at different rates gives me an advantage, as long as I don’t put off my picking. As soon as I decide “I’ll get to them next week,” the birds set their watches and finish off my cherries an hour before.

Garden Wrapup, and I’ve Got Broccoli!

To harvest, you need a sharp knife.

The forecast low temperature for tomorrow night is 27º, so I was outside this afternoon doing the last harvesting of my garden – and lo and behold, I’ve finally got two heads of broccoli!

I couldn’t believe it, but they’re beautiful things. One is as big as you’d see in a store, one is smaller – and there’s a little bitty floret all on its own, cute as the dickens.

Took ’em long enough; I planted them months ago, and they didn’t seem to do anything. My cabbage never did form a head, and though I only planted it for decoraton, I yanked it out today and put it in the compost pile. But I have broccoli, plus three whole shopping bags full of produce.

I ended up with two dozen bell peppers, three dozen tomatoes (some green, but they’ll ripen indoors), a dozen or so onions (which didn’t grow as big as I’d hoped) and a whole huge mess of leeks.

I ran into my friend Jayne this evening at Murphy’s grocery, and she’s coming by tomorrow after school to get some leeks, peppers, fresh oregano and green tomatoes. I love her, but I’m not giving up my broccoli!

[Sidebar: Until now I’d have said I am “almost never” a selfish person. I know a lot of others like me, including my best friend Stephen; indeed, none of my friends is the least bit selfish. They’re kind, loving people, which is pretty much my criterion for who gets admitted into my circle of real friends. I have a lot of them.

[But when it comes to my own produce, I am both generous and self-interested. I’ve only got 2.1 heads of broccoli and dammit, them’s goin’ into my soup!

[So come to find out that regarding food, I am as greedy and protective as my dog Luke. He’s developed a habit lately at breakfast. He’ll go and look at his pellets, but he doesn’t start eating until I leave the kitchen and start opening up the blinds to let in the morning. At suppertime he’s entirely different; he knows that meat and veggies are his, and he races to dig in. But in the morning I have to prove that I’m not interested in his stuff.

[The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are very concerned about human selfishness; “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That constant refrain and warning have never really made total sense to me; I was already brainwashed/in love with Jesus at a very young age, I got the message the first time. I’m a social worker, a Gay activist, a commissioned evangelist; I chose voluntary poverty when I was 14 and I’m glad I did. I also have the tremendous blessing I call the Shared Gay Personality™, which in my experience is wonderfully altruistic. But here I am guarding a dollar’s worth of broccoli. “That’s mine, dammit!”]

This evening I made my friend John’s recipe for potato-leek soup. It’s perfect in terms of technique, though naturally I tweaked it a bit. Mind you, as a smalltown Hoosier I’ve never eaten leeks before, much less grown them. First the recipe, plus my additions in parentheses, and then my reaction.

Puréeing is good, but leave some lumps in, I say.

John’s Potato-Leek Soup

5 leeks, sliced (mine were less than an inch in diameter)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
2 T oil (1 T butter, 1 T olive oil)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
14 oz can of chicken broth
4 C water
S&P to taste
(1 C whole milk)
(chopped parsley to taste)

Heat butter and oil; add leeks and onion and cook to opaque but not brown. Add broth, water and potatoes; bring to boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Purée in blender (but only two-thirds; I want some lumps so you know I made this by hand). (Add milk, return to low heat; add parsley.) Serves 8 maybe.

The result? It’s very good and technically perfect, since you also get the flavor of the potato broth. And it’s very, very easy.

But the leeks are too mild for this to be as good a potato soup as you can make. For that you need onions, not leeks.

Mind you, I regard onions as a kitchen miracle; they add so much to so many things I cook. Stir-frys, meat loaf, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, omelets, pizza; when I’m chopping onions I know I’m cooking.

Yet I would never describe myself as an onion-lover, as if I can’t get enough of that taste. I use them in proportion, they’re seldom the stars in my cookery, any more than garlic is, another onion relative that adds depth and flavor.

But I guess I do love onions, and my Grandmother made a fabulous potato soup with them, better than this potato-and-leek version. Potato soup was one of the first dishes I mastered, when I was maybe 13.

Leeks are wonderful (and the leaves are so pretty), but so far to me they’re bland. Why would anyone eat this soup when they could eat Grandma’s?

Leeks are described as sweet and mild. But the pungency of an onion adds so much more flavor. Considering that potatoes themselves are bland, why add mild to bland? I did find out to add more black pepper than usual, a dozen twists on my little mill at least, when ordinarily I’m cautious with the peppercorns; I’m a Hoosier, we don’t do spicy food.

My big satisfaction this evening was, as it’s been all summer, growing some of my own food. And you can’t get fresher than just picked today. No fertilizer, no herbicides, just good old Indiana loam, some of the richest soil on earth.

This land is so fertile that my tomato plants bent their cages double. I’m used to the vines growing a yard tall and five feet wide, producing scores of fruits per plant, but this year they just went nuts. Tomatoes are my favorite food, but I let some of them rot on the vine after I’d put up all I thought I could use.

Still, as the season wanes, the last few tomatoes become ever dearer; when winter comes the ones for sale in the stores are pretty much worthless. So even though I had bags and bags of produce to clean and make decisions about, I had to eat one of my ripe tomatoes fresh over the sink with a salt shaker in my hand. You ain’t Hoosier till the tomato juice drips off your chin.

At season’s end I feel like I made great progress as a gardener this year; I had an actual vegetable garden for the first time, instead of my previous haphazard experiments. I cleared out and marked off a good large space with a southern exposure, instead of planting things in flowerbeds next to the house and seeing what worked. I grew several new species; it’s not good to just grow the same old things year after year. I had strawberries and broccoli and leeks, as well as the usual herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I tried new things; I don’t know why the cabbage didn’t work – or maybe I do.

Some people love to eat cabbage; I mostly like to look at it.

The biggest learnings come from failures, including that cabbage. I should have enclosed it, and the broccoli and peppers, in chickenwire to keep the rabbits out. I’m so unmechanical I don’t know how to build things, but I think next year I’ll try driving some sticks in the ground and wrapping plastic fencing around. This won’t entirely deter rabbits, who are happy to dig underground for free rabbit food, but it will slow them down and maybe give me a cabbage or two to look at. I have nothing against eating cabbage, it’s good for you, but I’m a single guy who can’t possibly eat the whole thing before it goes bad.

My other big failure was not watering the garden when I should have. From spring to midsummer we had plenty of rain here, but by mid-August we went into a mild drought, and I should have been faster on the uptake; tomatoes are nothing but sunshine and water. Instead of huge and perfect juicy fruits as I had in early summer, in time they started to split, which invites bugs and then it’s all over. A good gardener keeps track of the rain.

I am not a good gardener yet, but I’m getting there. Most of my strawberry plants survived, but a few of them died, probably because I neglected to water them. That’s okay; instead of planting the ever-bearing variety as I did this year, I’ll plant the spring-bearing “ohmygod it’s a strawberry festival” ones next year, and make jam with the surplus like I used to for my mother.

I doubt I plant leeks. I don’t dislike them but I wasn’t that impressed, and I think I’ll put down onions instead, and maybe some radishes again. Planting leeks as seedlings, which is how Murphy’s offers them, is a pain in the ass. They are tiny little things, 400 to a four-compartment plastic container, and I didn’t find any good advice online about how to deal with them; all the articles from state extension services discuss planting from seed only. I separated my seedlings as seemed best at the time, planting 20 or 30 of them in a hole instead of one by one, but what that gave me was a clump of 30 ingrown leeks. Why would I want 400, especially when they’re “sweet and mild?”

Nope, I want onions instead.

This year I tried out a new type of triangular tomato cage made of plastic, where you can put the crossbars where the plant needs them, instead of where the stamped-out wire happens to go. That plastic cage is the only one still standing; the wire ones I’ve had for some years proved worthless in this rich and juicy rivermuck. In very fertile soil it’s much better to build a modular structure as needed, knowing the vine’s going to grow five feet wide and spill all over everywhere if you don’t control it.

Tomatoes supported on a cage don’t get down in the dirt where they can be attacked by bugs. I’m tellin’ ya, I had a tomato jungle again this year. Leonardo thinks Guatemala’s wild; he should see what grows in my loam.

One last thing: a very old woman who’s an expert gardener lives four doors down at the end of my block. I’m told she’s a farmer’s wife who moved into town with her husband when they retired; that’s common here, because life in town is more convenient. When old age stops tying you to the land, you move to town.

I’ve never met her, a widow now, though I’ve seen her hobbling along on occasional walks, a little old lady in Reeboks. Her home, lawn and vegetable garden are impeccable. She already has her garden cleared for next year; has had for a couple of weeks.

Today I learned that there has to come a time when you say about a garden, “That’s it, I’m done for the year, this is the best I can do.” She gets a head start on next spring by preparing her land this fall. For the first time I emulated her today, as I finished my harvest and started ripping things out.

Every year she builds her own rabbit fence; does her weeding in the morning before it gets hot. Doubtless she measures the rain day by day and waters her garden as needed; it’s always lush. I envy her for knowing so much more than I do, and doing her work instead of getting lazy once the thrill of planting fades away. Anyone can get excited about growing things in the springtime; the key to a garden is regular maintenance.

I did a better job of weeding this year than ever before, and I cleared that land, marked it off and planted new species. My marigold terrace is still half-fabulous, at least until tomorrow night; I had chives and oregano and parsley and tomatoes and tarragon to beat the band. My impatiens and dill, lilies and peonies gave me enormous pleasure. I grilled out on the side porch all summer, and taught my dog to stay there with me.

But there’s no substitute for experience; for trying and failing, for learning by doing. Grow some leeks, see what they’re like; switch to onions next year if you like, or petunias or pumpkins. Keep the water steady and the weeds under control.

The rules are pretty basic but you have to pay attention.

I hope I get to meet Mrs. Voglund someday; maybe we’ll talk about leeks, and why onions are really much better. Maybe we’ll talk about controlling rabbits.

Maybe I’ll tell her how fabulous Grandma’s potato soup was; how she chopped and cooked everything by hand, and never puréed.++

The only image on the internet of a simple potato soup, without garnishes, toppings, machinery or fanciness.

Everybody’s Favorite Vegetable

There are people who don’t like sweet corn; I think they’re nuts, but there’s no accounting for taste.

There are people who don’t like tomatoes; I encourage them in their hatred, because that leaves more ‘maters for me.

There are people who do like Brussels sprouts; I contend there is nothing you can do to them to make them edible.

But there’s no one I know who doesn’t like green beans. People who never eat vegetables at all eat green beans. They’re abundant, inexpensive, they taste good and yes, they’re good for you (vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber).

Up to now I’ve had three or four ways to prepare them, but as of last night, I now have another method.

Man, are they good in a stir-fry!

I’ve been on a stir-fry kick for over a week now. Bob, Marcia and Ote were here last week; Bob’s an Episcopal priest, Marcia’s a Presbyterian minister and my spiritual director. Ote (short for Otis; pronounced Oatey) is Marcia’s hubby and maybe the most interesting of all of us. I invited everyone for a house Mass, followed by an agapé meal as the early Church used to do it.

It was very important to me, with these two clergy here, that we celebrate the Eucharist. I don’t get to go to it often enough, and one should always take advantage of the chance; plus this was a way for me to recognize Marcia’s ordination – her right to celebrate. That’s a real breakthrough for me theologically; I’ve never known a Presbyterian before, and my tendency is to consider Communion said by someone outside the Apostolic Succession as of doubtful validity. If I were present at a Presbyterian service and they said, “Take, eat,” I would, but I wouldn’t be sure what I was eating.

But it’s been nearly two years since I’ve been working with Marcia; she’s been a godsend, and I’m really clear that we are sister and brother in the faith. With Bob here concelebrating with her, there couldn’t be any doubt about the validity of the sacrament, and I wanted Marcia front and center.

It turned out great, and I was very, very pleased – spiritually happy, even though we were all so busy doing our parts and trying to follow the rubrics, which Marcia and Ote had never dealt with before, that the service was probably a little out of focus.

But no matter; we know what we did, and it meant a lot to all of us. Episcopal mass, celebrated right at my house, maybe the first time it’s ever been said in town history!

We got through it, then it was time to feed the hungry people, and for that I was ready with the stir-fry, which is all preparation and chopping beforehand, then the food’s done in ten minutes. (Bob did most of the chopping, then while I was cooking, they all stayed in the dining room and I missed out on the entire conversation! That’s never happened before; usually people congregate in my kitchen, since I have seating there. Next time I’ll say, “Won’t you bring your glasses into the kitchen so we can be together?”)

I made my standard chicken cashew, which they all raved about; Ote had three helpings and Bob had two. Ote’s a marathoner and I was glad to see him eat.

I may have written about this recipe before; I’ll reproduce it in a minute, but meanwhile here’s the news. Bob stayed another day and a half; the next night at his suggestion we did something different with the chicken breasts, grilled them outdoors with my scandalously simple lemon juice and Worcestershire marinade. He kind of hacked away at making twice-baked potatoes but they turned out good and we had a fine conversation. He left early the next morning, and when I got up (at 8:30, I’ll have you know), I couldn’t wait to eat the leftover stir-fry.

I never wake up with food on the brain, but I did that day. I ate those leftovers for the rest of the week, and then I made the whole dish again slightly differently.

That’s when I discovered how fabulous green beans are when you stir-fry them. I didn’t include them the first time around.

Until last night, these were my ways of making green beans: boil them frozen out of a poly bag and add some butter; steam them 5-8 minutes with fresh rosemary; simmer the crap out of them for an hour with some bacon (Southren Indiana Style); or cook them the standard way and throw them in with sauteéd mushrooms, a can of soup and French-fried onions, also out of a can, in Thanksgiving Cliché #1. They’re popular because they’re good.

But oh, honey, stir-fried, them babies is fabulous!

The key to stir-frying, of course, is using high heat and not overcooking anything, so veggies still have all their color and the crunch.

I would never eat a raw carrot; I just don’t like the taste. But two or three minutes in my wok, with some onion, red pepper, celery, mushrooms and whatever else I’ve got, and carrots are definitely in business.

But I never tried green beans before last night; not Chinese, any more than I am.

But when we imagine how Chinese mothers came to develop their national and regional cuisines, we can certainly visualize a cook surveying what she’s got, using rice as a staple protein, figuring out how to make a little bit of meat go a long way, then seasoning everything so the poor kids don’t know any better.

It’s an old culture and they’re brilliant about their food.

I think from now on, when I need to make a vegetable side dish, whatever it’s going with, I’ll probably just stir-fry whatever’s in my crisper. The sauce in the recipe below works with everything.

(With a roast, throw your vegetables in a pan, drizzle with olive oil, stick in the oven with the meat and forget about it.)

Josh’s Chicken Cashew

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 C rice, 2 C water, 1 T butter, 1 t salt
1-2 stalks celery, sliced diagnoally
1-2 carrots, the same
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
1/2 can water chestnuts, sliced
1 large onion, sliced haphazardly
1 head of broccoli, cut in florets OR
1/2 head of bok choy, chopped rough
2 T sesame oil (tolerates high heat)
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C roasted cashews
1/3 C chicken broth
1 T cornstarch
2 1/2 T soy sauce
1/2 t hot sauce, or more to taste
1 1/2 t fresh chopped gingerroot
(or 1/2 t ground ginger)
2 scallions, white part sliced, tops julienned

Cook rice. Chop vegetables. Chop chicken bite-sized. Heat wok to medium-high; add 1 T sesame oil and cover sides. In covered jar, mix broth, cornstarch, soy sauce and hot sauce; shake well.

Stir-fry chicken until cooked through, 5-7 minutes; remove and keep warm. Re-oil wok and let it heat up. Stir-fry veggies 3-5 minutes, just past raw. Add brown sauce and stir to thicken. Return chicken to wok, add cashews and heat through. Serve over rice; garnish with scallion.

With Ote, Marcia and Bob, I did something unusual for me; I spread the rice on a platter and served family-style; this keeps the rice hotter than using separate bowls. They ate it up.

And the best moment of the night: Ote reaching for more. Then Bob. Then Ote. Then Bob, just a little more. When you put the food in front of people they get themselves some more.

I think the next time I serve Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti, it’s also going to be family-style, one platter, not separate plates I bring in from the kitchen. We are not a restaurant.

A week ago Monday, when we had our Mass, we were family.++