The mosquitoes are out in full force, covering my skin with pink welts each time I venture into our overgrown garden. My hair frizzes to twice its volume as soon as I consider stepping outside. I can’t walk down the block without tiny beads of sweat popping up on the back of my neck, yet my office is frigid enough to require a sweater. Spring seems to have moved on early this year, leaving in her wake an abrasive and demanding Summer.
But, despite all of this personal discomfort, I love this time of year. Truly, I do.
I love the thunderstorms that sweep in like clockwork each afternoon, lending the sky an ominous tone and the air an electric buzz. I love the booths at the farmer’s market, the tables full of greens and berries and cucumbers and beets. I love that the water is warm enough to take the dogs swimming at the reservoir, and that those trips are the perfect opportunity for a picnic. I love drinking Moscow Mules on the back deck while watching fireflies glow in the trees, and the smell of sun screen and citronella and bug spray made sweeter by the intoxicating aroma of freshly-mown grass and trampled mint.
Those are all compelling arguments, I know, but what I love most about this Almost-Summer time of year is the local Virginia fruit. Those few days where I find myself wandering between tidy rows of strawberries, or ducking under tree branches dripping with both rainwater and cherries, are worth every welt on my itchy legs. Filling our basket with blueberries and melons at Charlottesville’s City Market makes the sweltering heat just bearable as we make our way between stalls. And folding homegrown raspberries into whipped buttercream…oh my. There aren’t many discomforts that fresh raspberry buttercream can’t fix.
But today, let’s focus on those cherries. Ten-year-old Andrea would probably tell you that they are her favorite fruit…ever…for their appearance at the grocery store was always perfectly timed with the end of school and the beginning of Summer vacation. My momma, a teacher and just as excited for the break, would plan day trips to Florida’s fresh water springs for my friends and me. A bag full of sweet cherries was always packed as part of our lunch. After a few hours of swimming and snorkeling and sharks’ tooth hunting the dark-skinned globes would come out of the cooler, icy cold and immediately covered in tiny beads of condensation.
We’d find a spot in the grass, out of the shade of our claimed pavilion. The spring water was frigid, and the sun felt good on our skin as we spread a blanket and chose our places for the competition that was sure to follow. Small hands reached into the Ziplock bag, pulling out handfuls of tangled fruit to place in cross-legged laps. One-by-one, plucked from the mass by rubbery stems, the cherries were popped into eager mouths. Rolled around and around the tongue, the pit was picked clean before being spat from juice-stained lips across the sun-soaked lawn.
I won’t deny that my adult days have seen the occasional cherry-pit-spitting contest. Yes, I do that. But 28-year-old Andrea has also learned how to bake and how to make jam, and that cherries pair well with savory partners as well as sweet. Take this dish, for instance, a variation on the classic tomato and basil bread salad. In it, sweet cherries are paired with the tang of balsamic vinegar and spicy arugula, all held together by a base of crisped bread and a topping of creamy chevre. It is a very adult meal, a lovely, rustic dinner for two on the back deck that is complimented nicely by an effervescent vinho verde.
Just be sure to save some of those whole cherries for dessert…you never know when your inner child will demand a little friendly competition.
Bread Salad with Cherries, Arugula and Goat Cheese
from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg
makes 4 first-course servings, or a meal for 2
- 6 oz rustic bread, preferably a day old (I used a whole wheat baguette)
- olive oil
- 1/2 pound cherries, halved and pitted (I used sweet cherries, and a cherry pitter was SO handy)
- 1/8 tsp pressed or crushed garlic
- balsamic vinegar
- fresh chevre, coarsely crumbled
- black pepper
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Trim crust from bread, and discard the crust. Tear the bread into rough, bite-size pieces (you should have about 4 cups, total). Dump the bread onto a rimmed baking sheet, and drizzle it with olive oil. Toss to coat. Bake until crispy and golden in spots, shaking the pan once, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, put about one-third of the cherries in a small bowl and mash them lightly with a fork to release their juices.
- When the bread is nicely toasted, turn it into a large bowl. While it is still hot, add the crushed garlic and toss well. Set the bowl aside to cool for a minute or two, then add all of the cherries, both mashed and halved, and toss. Add 2 tsp balsamic vinegar and toss again. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch or two of salt and toss again.
- Taste, and adjust the vinegar, oil and salt as needed. The bread and cherries should taste good on their own. When you’re satisfied with the flavor, add about 2 handfuls of arugula and toss one last time. Finish with a generous amount of crumbled goat cheese and a few grinds of the pepper mill, and serve.