Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cherry-Sour Plum Jam

Sour cherries, a treat of Eastern European and Russian cuisine common in East Coast and Midwest markets, do not exist in San Francisco.

At least that's what I hear from two friends who tried to find them here and then reported that sour cherries aren't grown anywhere in California.

Sweet red cherries made a triumphant return last week. I tasted samples of wildly divergent quality at three or four stalls before I arrived at the DeSantis stand, where I noticed women in headscarves handing over $20 in exchange for covered boxes. If there's one thing I love at the market, it's the air of insider knowledge.

"What's in there?" I asked.

"Leaves," Mrs DeSantis answered. She pointed to the women in the scarves. "That culture likes them."

"It's the Mediterraneans: I'm one of them," one of her helpers said. "Grape leaves for dolmas. Try the sour plums. We like them, too."

I had noticed the plums: pale green and hard, with a waxy skin. The tart flavor hits your tongue like acid as you crunch through the skin, then fades a bit, as if your taste buds deciphered some code. I decided to try them with cherries as a mock 'sour cherry' jam.

The rub? Now I had to pit over 100 individual fruits, with a mild hangover on a Sunday morning. And I had to do it early because swing dancing lessons in the park started at noon.

The most efficient way to do this is probably with a cherry pitter, which I don't own. The plums I slit open and scraped around the pits. In contrast, the soft, pulpy cherries were easy to pit by hand, pressing the pit through the flesh.

Time-consuming, yes. First I was annoyed with my lack of foresight. Then I got into the rhythm and thought--wait, isn't this the best part of cooking? Up early on a foggy Sunday morning, drinking tea, listening to This American Life, and making headway on a mountain of fruit?

The jam was pretty good. Not as sour as a true sour cherry jam, but with a pleasant tartness and depth of flavor.

Cherry-Sour Plum Jam
3 cups cherries, washed and pitted
2 cups sour plums, washed and pitted
1 1/4 cups sugar
A bit of water

Pit fruit and toss in a nonreactive pot. I added about a tablespoon of water because the cherries weren't particularly juicy and I didn't want them to stick to the pan, but if your chopped fruit yields a decent amount of liquid you need add no water.

Heat slowly and bring up to boil, then add sugar. I tasted the fruit first and determined that 1 1/4 cups of sugar worked well. Cook gently until the fruit falls apart and pulls back together.

All in all, the pitting took over an hour and the cooking about an hour and a half.


Benjamin said...

Hi Colleen,

This is benny from the cook here and now dinners. You know I am also one of those always on the lookout for sour cherries. They are definitely grown in the US but very hard to find here. Last summer I happened upon fresh sour cherries in a Russian grocer near 18th/Geary. They were delicious. I haven't been back this year but I am going to check in again. The weird part is that last year I found them in August. I've also been prodding some of the Alemany farmers if they are going to get them and at least one told me should would see what she could do. June is the prize month for sour cherries so with any luck they are on their way.

The mystery continues!


colleen said...

Hey, Benny!

Good to know--I had almost given up hope. I've seen canned versions, particularly at those Russian/Eastern European delis out in the avenues, but fresh sour cherries really can't be beat.

DMP said...

They do have sour cherries in San Francisco, grown in California. But the season is very short (and now over)