Photo: Sang An
Is there anything better than a bowl of juicy, just-picked cherries on a hot summer afternoon? Chef Vitaly Paley doesn't think so—and at his Portland restaurant, near the bountiful Oregon cherry orchards, the irresistible fruit stars in all kinds of salads, elegant main courses, and eye-popping desserts.If cherries didn't exist, someone surely would have invented them back in the Mad Men–filled offices of the 1960s; after all, they are the apotheosis of girl-next-door sweetness ripening to lipstick sexuality. With their heartlike shape, their taut skin, and their crimson juice, they would have been a marketer's dream come true.
But in fact, cherries have been beloved for millennia, despite a complete lack of hype by anyone but the occasional poet. It's easy to see why: They're not only pretty enough to make a parson blush but are also among the most delicious early summer fruits. Pop one in your mouth and its flavor will unfold like wine as it travels across your palate, starting out with bursts of sugar and flowers on the tip of the tongue, then passing through a refreshing astringency midmouth before arriving at a spicy warmth in the throat. Chemists have confirmed that these sensations aren't mere head-over-heels delusions but rather are due to a surprising mix of naturally occurring fragrant oils that carry much of a fruit's flavor, including flowery linalool and clovelike eugenol.
Such complexity makes cherries particularly intriguing to Vitaly Paley, chef and co-owner of Paley's Place, a bistro in Portland, Oregon, and coauthor of The Paley's Place Cookbook, who, along with pastry chef Lauren Fortgang, provided the recipes for this story. "They are one of my favorite fruits," he says—expressing a fondness that goes back to his early childhood in Belarus. "I vividly remember my grandfather bringing in big bushels of cherries in the summer. They were so sweet and head-spinning," especially when Paley would sneak onto the balcony and pilfer one from the vat where they were being converted into cherry wine. These days he is just as happy to see them tossed with sugar and lemon and baked in a pie, because such simple preparations allow the fruit's captivating balance of flavors to take center stage. Cherries' dark, warm notes make them a perfect match for bitter chocolate, too, while rich, tart dairy products like goat cheese and crème fraîche accent their subtle sour side. Paley also loves pairing cherries with almonds, which—along with other stone fruits like apricots, peaches, and plums—are their botanical cousins. And he frequently plays up the subtle spiciness in cherries by adding ginger or cinnamon, a sophisticated marriage that recalls for him the countless cherry gelatos he ate while walking the "wondrous streets" of Rome, where he lived with his mother as an adolescent.
Given the depth of their flavor, it's no surprise that cherries, like wine, go especially well with savory ingredients. Paley, who apprenticed at Michelin-starred Moulin de la Gorce in La Roche-L'Abeille, France, and also worked at the New York restaurants Union Square Cafe and Chanterelle, uses cherries to highlight the richness of game, tame the bitterness of certain greens, and when dried, add an intriguing tartness to salads and grains.
He also eats them fresh, by the dozens. "When the season starts in early June, I'll sit there with a pile in front of me and go through them handfuls at a time." It's fortuitous that a chef so obsessed with cherries would land in Oregon, the state that produces the fourth-largest cherry crop in the United States (after Washington, Michigan, and California). "As the harvest begins, I literally lie awake thinking about what I'm going to cook tomorrow," says Paley. "The beauty of seasonal cooking is that you get to rediscover an ingredient every time it reappears."
For the home cook, a love of cherries can pay off. They are a superb source of antioxidants and are high in potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure. Certain kinds of cherries are also among the few natural sources of melatonin, the sleep aid. If you aren't a fan already, it may simply be that you haven't found the right cherry. More than 500 varieties grow worldwide—including the tart Morello from Europe, the Montmorency from Michigan, and the sweet Bing, Rainier, Stella, and blushing gold Royal Ann from the Pacific Northwest. Custom decrees that sour cherries are best for baking, since their natural acidity counteracts the sweetness of the added sugar and the richness of butter and eggs. Sweet cherries, meanwhile, have traditionally been reserved for savory dishes or eating out of the hand. At Paley's Place, recipes are adapted to suit whichever cherries are available, by adding either sugar or lemon juice to push the fruit's flavor in one direction or the other. Whatever the preparation, Paley doesn't fuss much with the cherries, preferring to allow their natural charms to shine through.
One type of fussing is inevitable, however: separating the stones from the flesh. "It's always a pain," says Lauren Fortgang of Paley's Place, who finds herself spending many a June afternoon pitting cherries. "They squirt you back," she says, "so you wind up looking like you just murdered someone." But perhaps it's a fitting rite of passage for a fruit that has hovered forever on the threshold between innocence and passion—and a small price to pay for the sweet, dark reward of tasting cherries at the peak of their brief, alluring season.
Get the recipes for 6 divine cherry desserts