Saturday, August 1, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Cherry Fest

This year, the Gardeners' Holiday we normally celebrate as Squashmas is going to be a bit different. It's not that we don't have plenty of zucchini this year; we've actually got four large zukes in the fridge right now. We managed this year to partly fend off the attacks of squash vine borers by covering the base of the stems with dirt, as recommended by a friend of ours who is a Master Gardener in Mercer County. This ploy saved only one of the two plants, but that's still a better success rate than we've had with any previous technique, such as wrapping the plant stem in aluminum foil (the little buggers just try a different stem) or putting out yellow cups to trap the adults (we didn't catch a single one).

So one of the plants is still producing, and even though the other one still succumbed, we managed to get quite a few squash off it before it bit the dust. So we are rolling in squash right now. In fact, last week Brian picked one that was so big he couldn't squeeze it into the veggie drawer; he ended up baking three loaves of zucchini bread, and even then he had a chunk bigger than his fist left over to throw into a couscous salad. And while the surviving plant is still suffering somewhat from powdery mildew (along with all our winter squash and cucumbers), we seem to be keeping it at bay by spraying the plants weekly with a milk and water solution, as recommended by radio-garden-show host Mike McGrath.

However, the success of the zucchini this year has been completely overshadowed by the advent of a new crop: our first big batch of bush cherries. Since we first planted our Meader bush cherries in 2013, we've managed to harvest only a few handfuls of fruit off them. We got about a cup of cherries that first year, enough to make a tiny cherry tart purely as a proof of concept, and nothing at all last year. But this summer, all five bushes started producing cherries in abundance. In fact, since the bushes themselves still aren't very big, a couple of them were completely bowed down by the weight of their own fruit.

We weren't quite sure how to decide when the cherries were ready to pick. A week ago, they were mostly red, but not quite red all over, and they still didn't come off the branches that easily. And when we tasted them, they were extremely sour—not just tart as you expect a tart cherry to be, but powerfully, mouth-puckeringly sour. So we decided to give them another week. Then on Wednesday, Brian declared that he'd tasted one and it seemed close to normal tart-cherry tartness, and he had also noticed that a few of them were starting to drop off the branches. So we decided it was better to harvest them right away, even if they weren't totally ripe yet, than risk losing the entire crop. We spent a good hour or two sitting on the ground (since the bushes are so tiny) pulling cherries off by the handful, and by the end, we'd filled two plastic colanders with our booty. Brian weighed the contents and found we had 4 pounds, 10 ounces, prior to pitting.

Brian did the pitting on Friday, using the drinking straw method shown here, while I read Anthony Trollope to him. We don't own a cherry pitter, and it probably wouldn't do us any good if we did, since our bush cherries are quite a bit smaller than most tree cherries and would probably slip right through the hole meant for ejecting the pit. The straw method is a bit time-consuming, but Brian found the work relaxing. He actually discovered that it's slightly faster if you push the straw through the cherry from the side, rather than from the stem end as shown in the video. That way the straw catches the pit sideways on, so you don't get the pit stuck in the straw and have to pause to eject it.

When the whole process was done, we ended up with a total of two quarts of pitted cherries. Brian measured out three two-cup portions into one-quart freezer bags and froze them, and the other two cups got turned into a dessert concoction Brian dreamed up. I'd been thinking the cherries would go nicely with a sort of eggy batter, so Brian melded together the recipes for a traditional cherry cobbler and the Giant Mushroom Popover out of The Clueless Vegetarian. This appears to be somewhat similar to the type of fruit dessert called a "buckle," except that with those you put the batter in first, and it "buckles" under the weight of the fruit. This version takes a shortcut by putting the fruit on the bottom to start with.

So, on the theory that bouncing is the opposite of buckling, I'm going to call it:
Brian's Cherry Bounce 
1. Combine 2 cups tart cherries, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch, and 1/4 tsp. vanilla. Pour into the bottom of a small baking pan. (Note: this came out a little on the tart side; if your cherries are as sour as ours, you probably need a bit more sugar.)
2. Beat 1 egg with 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 Tbsp. sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 Tbsp. melted butter. Pour over top of the cherries.
3. Bake at 400°F for 25 minutes.
And we did get in a little celebration of zucchini season, as well; the Cherry Bounce is following up a main course of Brian's Skillet Kugel, modified with the addition of a grated medium zucchini. Surprisingly, the potato-zucchini-leek mixture held together quite well, and the taste was hardly affected. Add one more way to dispose of excess zucchini to the old bag of tricks.
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