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Alan Tangren: Cherry treasures

Dear Alan: I love cherries and would like to learn how to choose the best ones at the market. Are there certain varieties that are better than others?

Alan: Sweet cherries are one of the true treasures of the springtime market. A good crop depends on the perfect combination of a cold winter, no frost during and after the bloom period, and warm spring temperatures to bring them to perfect ripeness.

Look for sweet California cherries starting in mid to late May and enjoy their short season into June, although fruit from Oregon and Washington can extend the season into July.

It is harder to find true sour cherries in our area, but I have found them at Goldbud in Placerville. Most production is in cold northern states like Michigan and New York, and much of the crop is processed into canned cherries, jam and pie filling. Sour cherries have a later season, at its peak in late June.

The only preparation that crisp, sweet cherries really need is a quick rinse in cold water. Then eat them at will.

But cooked cherries, sweet and sour, have their own special place at the table. When cherry season is in full swing, I like to use them in pies, cobblers, tarts and clafoutis.

Bing has long been recognized as the best quality dark sweet cherry. They are large, round and plump, with a crisp texture and rich, sweet flavor. Bings ripen toward the middle of cherry season, but some good earlier varieties are Black Tartarian, Tulare and Burlat. When the Bings are done, look for Lambert, Van and Black Republican.

Most cherries found in grocery stores are not labeled by variety, but the produce manager should be able to tell you what's on display. Your best bet to learn about the different named varieties is at the grower's market, where you can ask farmers about specific characteristics of varieties they grow, and find your favorites.

When at the market, choose cherries that are bright and plump. Avoid any that are bruised, soft, or show signs of mold. Stems should be green and pliable. Refrigerate as soon as possible, packed loosely in a plastic bag.

At Chez Panisse we discovered a way to improve the qualities of the first cherries of the season if we couldn't wait for perfect flavor and ripeness. For 2 pounds of cherries, stem and wash them, and pit them or not. Place a pan that will hold them in a single layer over high heat and sprinkle on ¼ cup sugar. Lower heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, tossing the cherries several times, until the sugar is dissolved and juices start to come out.

Stir in a teaspoon of kirsch and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Remove from heat and let stand at room temperature for an hour or two for the flavors to develop. These are great served with a slice of pound cake, or over vanilla ice cream.

Pickled Cherries

To extend the too-short cherry season, you can pickle them and enjoy them months later. These are especially good alongside fatty meats like duck and pork.

2 pounds cherries

1-1/2 cups sugar

4-1/4 cups white wine vinegar

4 whole cloves

6 black peppercorns

Rinse, dry and pick over the cherries, and discard any blemished ones. Trim the stems to ½ inch.

Prepare 8 1-pint canning jars and self-sealing lids in boiling water, following manufacturer's instructions.

Stir together the sugar, vinegar, cloves and peppercorns in a nonreactive saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer 3 minutes.

Pack the cherries into the canning jars and ladle the hot syrup over the cherries. Cover and seal the jars, following manufacturer's instructions.

Let sit for two months in a cool, dark place before using. They should keep for several months after that in the refrigerator.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef's Tables at Tess' Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.