11/03/2011 01:43 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012


In a way, life actually is like a bowl of cherries: imperfect. And, like life, a bowl of cherries almost always contains just enough really good ones to keep going. Which is why, when we buy cherries, we almost always eat them raw, plain, and quickly.

The best cherries are a summer-only treat that requires no fuss. The best cherries, however, are rare: The fruit has a short growing season, and unless you live in a cherry-producing region (like Michigan or Washington) and have access to a local orchard, the cherries you buy are likely to have been picked prematurely to keep them from bruising during handling and shipping.

But even imperfect cherries can very much be improved upon with the application of a little heat, sugar, and other flavors. This is true of both sweet and sour cherries. Sour cherries (also known as tart cherries or pie cherries) are smaller, brighter in color, and rounder than sweet cherries, which are the dark red, fleshy ones, also called Bing cherries -- the ones we eat out of hand. If you have a sour tooth, you may also enjoy eating sour cherries raw, but cooking them takes the edge off and brings out their almost floral aroma, which is why they're used most often in pies.

Sadly, sour cherries have become hard to find, and though canned ones are everywhere, their texture leaves something to be desired. Frozen sour cherries are widely available, however, and they're a good substitute for fresh. They also save you the trouble of having to remove the pits. (Pitting is time consuming but easy enough, and can be made a bit easier with a cherry pitter, a worthwhile investment if you cook with fresh cherries or olives even occasionally.)

One of my favorite things to do with cherries -- sweet or sour, fresh or frozen -- is to stew them, which makes them tender and juicy and deepens their flavor. This can be done with nothing more than water and a pinch of salt or sugar, depending on whether you want to serve the cherries as a dessert (they're fabulous over ice cream) or as a savory sauce to accompany meat (steak, pork, chicken, and duck all go nicely with cherries).

You can also make stewed cherries a little fancier by adding flavorings -- a cinnamon stick, a few cardamom pods, a split vanilla bean, some orange zest, or a sprig of thyme or rosemary -- or by using stock, juice, or wine as the liquid. Port, the Portuguese dessert wine, is an especially good poaching liquid for cherries -- it enhances their natural flavor while infusing them with a boozy sweetness that's unbeatable.

But you can cook cherries other ways too, because they tend to hold their shape when heated, and they complement a wide variety of other foods. Since they're in season in the summer, it makes perfect sense to grill them; they require only a couple of minutes over the flame, and they develop a soft, lightly charred flesh and a hint of smokiness. Though you can impale cherries on skewers, brush them with a little butter, grill them, and serve them as dessert with whipped cream and cake or cookies, I like giving them a savory treatment by pairing them with pork shoulder and brushing them with a simple lemon-olive oil marinade.

Cherries in Port
Pork and Cherry Kebabs

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