Although I try to eat a mostly seasonal diet, I’ve got to admit that in the dark months of January and February, I start craving fruit. Not just apples and pears, but bright juicy summer fruits like berries. At least once every winter I break down and come home from the grocery store with a bag of cherries, just because I really, really need them, even if they’re nowhere as good as the local cherries we get in the summertime.
Given that this week is the first National Eat Red Week (February 4th – February 10th), I don’t feel so bad about indulging in some cherries. Particularly since local tart cherries are available both dried and in juice concentrate form year round – Ontario is the sole producing province of commercially-grown tart cherries, most of which are the Montmorency variety, and over the past five years, the average annual crop has been an average of 10 million pounds.
Much is being made about cherries as the new “superfood”, and research shows cherries to be high in antioxidants like anthocyanins, as well as exceptional amounts of melatonin, a chemical created by the body to help aid sleep and promote healing. Funnily enough, I had to dig deep on Google to find actual numbers for the amount of melatonin in cherries – 13.5 nanograms of melatonin per gram, a ratio that is higher than that found in human blood – which is a bit curious. Given the number of sites I discovered selling cherry juice concentrate with the promise of helping everything from gout and arthritis to heart disease, you’d think the companies selling the product would want that info front and centre.
I’m not much of a believer in superfoods of any sort (I’m old enough to remember the 80s when we all thought oat bran was going to cure every single thing that ailed us) and I’ve got a friend with a chronic illness who once turned to cherry juice concentrate when the pain from fibromyalgia became unbearable. Her assessment of the healing properties of cherry juice? It tastes great but it doesn’t heal much of anything. In the US, the FDA has issued a warning to companies marketing cherry products based on unproven health claims. And a Google search on tart cherries or cherry juice turns up a number of sites that look eerily similar to all those pyramid schemes selling other unproven “healing” products such as noni juice or goji berries. Just have a look at the Google ads that come up in the right-hand sidebar to accompany this post.
As Michael Pollan notes in his recent book In Defense of Food, there is still so much that we just don’t know about the healing properties of the various chemicals in what we eat, that it would be incredibly foolish to pin all our hopes on one single “super” food. Better, instead, to eat real food, mostly plants, and ensure a variety of all fruits and vegetables in our diets.
There is definitely a place for red foods, including cherries, in the rainbow on our plates, however, and cherries are good for more than pie and jam. At a recent event at Globe Bistro, Chef Ben Heaton prepared a cherry tasting menu with dried tart cherries or cherry juice used in every dish. Cherry juice was injected into fois gras; dried cherries were added in place of the traditional cranberry in a duck confit sundae. Cherry caviar was served atop chestnut flour blinis, and cherries were used in sorbet, ice cream, clafouti, and biscotti.
My favourite way to use dried cherries is in rice pilaf along with almonds and apricots. They’re also great in place of cranberries in muffins, cookies or chocolates. I’ve also discovered that cherry juice concentrate makes a great marinade for chicken, pork or even tofu. And even if the much-touted healing properties are in question, as my friend’s experience indicated, it does make a really tasty drink, either on its own with water, or mixed with sparkling water, gingerale or even champagne.
So while I’m not convinced that cherries are going to cure the people of the world of their various illnesses (because honestly – has any of the myriad “superfoods” we’ve run through so far really been the magic bullet?), they’re still a fabulously versatile fruit, good for both sweet or savoury dishes, or just for eating out of hand, whether fresh or dried.
Dried tart cranberries and cherry juice concentrate are available in many health food stores around the city. For recipes and more info on cherries, visit Choose Cherries.