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Tart, Juicy Sour Cherries Arrive at the Greenmarkets, a Prized Catch for Bakers

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Eater critic Robert Sietsema samples the newly available sour cherries at the Union Square Greenmarket, which are only available for a few weeks

A table full of sour cherries in wooden boxes.
Sour cherries aren’t cheap, but they sure are good.

Stone fruits like apricots, peaches, and nectarines are just now beginning to flood the city’s Greenmarkets. Their harbinger is always cherries. First, the red cherries arrive, then the yellow cherries follow about a week later, prized for their mottled appearance and milder flavor. Finally, the queen of the summer fruits appears, and the rarest: the sour cherry. A Brooklyn friend reported seeing some at Grand Army Plaza last Saturday, and I spotted my first yesterday at the Union Square Greenmarket.

What is a sour cherry? They are intense, and puckeringly sharp. They tend to be slightly smaller than red cherries (though not always so), and can sometimes be a lighter shade of red. But their salient feature is their perishability — they only last for a few days at the most, and their availability is usually limited to a couple of weeks in early summer.

A basket of sour cherries.

For their tartness and juiciness, they are prized by bakers for making cherry pies, as well as fruit crumbles, clafoutis, and muffins. As Monroe Boston Strause says in his epic and equally rare cookbook, Pie Marches On (1939), “The red sour pitted cherry is always best suited for pie baking,” and goes on to caution that the juice must be saved as the fruit is pitted. (If you don’t have a cherry pitter, try a straw.)

Sour cherries are said to not be good as a hand fruit; many apparently find them too tart to enjoy. Those are not the same people who were wolfing down Sour Power candies 25 years ago, though. Sour cherries have almost exactly the same sweet-sour balance, which is to say, not much sweetness. I, for one, enjoy eating them fresh.

But due to their perishability and comparative scarcity, sour cherries come at a price. I paid $15 for a quart of the fruit sold by Caradonna Farms out of Marlborough, New York, just south of Poughkeepsie on the west side of the Hudson River. (Apparently, 75 percent of the country’s sour cherries are grown in Michigan.) This weekend, the fruit will likely be at its peak. But is a quart enough to make a pie? Apparently so. But I dare you to buy a quart and find yourself not eating a few.

Other produce to look for in the Greenmarket this Fourth of July weekend: fresh fava beans, black raspberries and yellow raspberries, 10 or so different types of lettuce, edible flowers, spigarillo broccoli, red carrot-size radishes, red currants, peaches, and herbs like calendula, lemon verbena, and bush basil.

A big bunch of radishes that look like red carrots.
These are radishes, not carrots.
Green fava beans in their pods.
Favas take some effort to prepare, but are delicious.