In Wisconsin's Door County, it's always cherry time


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ELLISON BAY, Wisc.

Cherry orchards line the roadsides almost like wallpaper here in Door County. They march inland in rows from the highway and northward to the tip of the peninsula. Billboards touting orchards, wineries, distilleries, bakeries, breweries, cheese stores and restaurants whet the appetite for the shiny red globes of fruit hanging beneath green leaves on the trees.

Choosing and handling cherries

Look for plump, shiny cherries with green stems. Avoid fruit that’s soft or has brown spots.

Keep cherries out of sunlight or warm places. Theyare quite perishable, but can be kept 7 to 10 days if refrigerated properly -- in the coldest part of the refrigerator, unwashed and uncovered. Cover any strong smelling foods and keep them away from cherries.

One 9-inch pie requires 2 to 2 1⁄2 pounds of fresh cherries on the stem.

For 1 cup of a sweet or savory sauce, use about 1⁄4 pound of cherries.

To freeze, wash cherries and dry them on a parchment- or foil-lined cookie sheet. Put in freezer until solid (about 30 minutes). Transfer frozen fruit to zipper-closured plastic bags and freeze. Use within 9 to 12 months.

To freeze pitted, sweet cherries, add 1⁄4 tablespoon sugar or honey for each pound on the stem.

To freeze tart cherries, sweeten with 1⁄4 to 1 cup honey or sugar for each pound on the stem.

Refrigerate for about 30 minutes; put cherries in zipper-style plastic bags. Squeeze out as much air as possible and allow 1⁄2 inch or so for expansion. Will keep in freezer for 9 to 12 months.

Limbs bend under the weight of the beautiful red fruit that’s visible from the car. They seem to be whispering, “Pick me, pick me!” I’m here on a media trip to experience cherries every which way, and am eager to sample twists on cherries I can only begin to imagine. After all, Door County has become one of America’s top culinary destinations.

Cherry season here  begins and ends later than where I live along Lake Erie. Last winter’s frigid weather made short work of Pennsylvania’s cherries, so seeing a good crop along Lake Michigan is heartening.

As the sun sets over Green Bay, the terrace at Carrington Pub and Grill in Egg Harbor is a relaxing place. Among the menu offerings are pork ribs topped with brandied Door County cherries or a rack of ribs with a cherry barbecue sauce and whole cherries that roll off the meat begging to be the first bite eaten. The Grill’s pretty Cherry Lemonade with Vodka is a perfect summer drink — not too sweet, not too tart.

Picturesque little towns like this dot the shoreline. Each one’s main street is festooned with cheerful planters, hanging baskets and gardens of summer flowers. One even planted marigolds in the narrow strip between curbs and sidewalks. All make fine spots, too, for a cocktail hour before dining out. A little cherry cheddar cheese accompanied by apple cherry cider is appealing, but more on that later.

Visiting Seaquist Orchards and owner Dale Seaquist is an education, history lesson and source of laughter. Forty or 50 years ago, he built the first version of a “shaker” for harvesting cherries. Current tree shakers can harvest four trees a minute; the work yields 60 to 70 pounds per tree. The family-owned business also processes cherries and apples. It fills 150,000 jars annually, of which one-third are chopped cherry jam.

During my time in the orchard, the cherry whispers grew louder as the harvest neared -- mere days away. “When the fruit gets loose and it tastes good, it’s time to harvest,” says Mr. Seaquist, pulling a cherry off a stem. His explanation of cherry growing and processing is punctuated with loud reports of propane guns in the orchard across the road; the sound drives away pilfering birds. There are no “pick your own” cherries, but Mr. Seaquist jokes, “We got another tourist.”

The retail store at Seaquist’s is a time-grabber. It takes a while to make your way around the spacious store. What’s your fancy? Fresh sweet or tart cherries, jam, jelly, pie filling, fresh pie, pure juice, salsa, cherry streusel muffin mix, cherry lemonade, cherry syrup? It’s all here and attractively displayed.

Door County doesn’t lack talented, creative people who exploit cherries in the best ways possible. Creative growers, processors, chefs, bakers, vintners, mixologists and residents have amassed a considerable variety of ways to use cherries to extend the delicious season beyond summer. During the harvest, it’s not uncommon to have fresh cherries at every meal, but off season they are available frozen, canned, dried, or as a beverage.

For example, one old product returning to stores may be new to some in the United States: “hard cider.” Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay is producing a unique twist on the beverage.

Yannique and Bob Purman’s Normandy-style — wine-like — ciders are dry with a subtle fruit flavor, making them a dramatic contrast to now mass-produced American products.

Yannique Purman predicts, “This style of cider is about to burst onto the scene. You’re going to see more and more of it.”

(Wines and the Normandy-style cider can be shipped from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania if they’re not available at retail outlets. Commonwealth regulations for shipping require that wines be purchased from a “Direct Wine Shipper” and sent to a Wine and Spirits store.)

It’s not hard to start the day when you have Baked Cherry Oatmeal to look forward to at Liberty Square’s Bistro in Egg Harbor. The warm, crunchy cherry breakfast is an unexpected treat. You’ll receive a friendly welcome from staff as well as from the owners who came out of retirement to start the successful Bistro, adjoining shops and restaurant. Baked Cherry Oatmeal and a cup of good coffee. What more could you ask?

Remember the cherry cheese? It’s from Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay, where they make and sell a wide variety of Wisconsin cheese. Third-generation cheese maker Chris Renard has earned the prestigious certification of Master Cheesemaker. Having at least five years of cheese-making experience is among the qualifications to enter the three-year program.

Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese is another source of fine cheese in Door County. Chef and culinary expert Janice Thomas offers more than 100 artisan cheeses and features more than 30 cheese makers in shops in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor. She also conducts hands-on cooking classes at her Savory Spoon Cooking School in Ellison Bay. Her state-of-the-art kitchen is in a restored 1879 school house. Outside the back door is a utility wagon on wheels repurposed to serve as her herb garden.

Chef Thomas, trim and fit despite being surrounded by food, counsels, “If you’re going to eat cake, eat only the best cake.” As for bacon to accompany her salad recipe, she highly recommends using Neuske’s Wild Cherrywood Smoked Bacon made in Wisconsin.

It was a surprise tinged with a moment of panic when I learned my session was “hands-on” and not just an eyes-on demonstration. She is a warm, encouraging teacher, and I came away no longer afraid to try making crepes -- cherry-filled, of course.

Another grand breakfast is Cherry-Stuffed French Toast at White Gull Inn in Fish Creek. The two golden-brown slices of egg bread are light, and the result is surprisingly not overly sweet, thanks to the cream cheese-cherry mixture. Beware: Half an order is probably more than enough for most, but a whole order is available. The White Gull won Good Morning America’s 2010 Challenge for America’s Best Breakfast with the recipe.

Bartenders have embraced Door County pure cherry juice as a must-have product. They’ve come up with summery drinks that go perfectly with relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Grill in Sister Bay features a Cherry Margarita. There really is a Fuzzy, who is listed that way in the phone book, because no one remembers his real name.

Locals have an old homemade cherry beverage that they crack open at Christmas. It’s Cherry Bounce, a winter treat Martha Washington and colonists once made. The strained syrup can be used as a liqueur, or reserve some cherries along with the syrup for a vanilla ice cream topping. Letting Bounce age from the summer cherry season until December is best.

Nothing’s too remote in Door County, after all, but Rowley’s Bay Resort and Restaurant is necessarily off the beaten path since it’s located near Mink River Estuary State Natural Area. Pull up a lawn chair, order a cherry Bay Breeze drink and watch the Mink River surge and mix with Lake Michigan.

A tour of Door Peninsula Winery and Door County Distillery in Carlsville, also located in a now-expanded old schoolhouse, shows how sweet and semi-sweet wines are made with cherries. The distillery is the first in the area to produce vodka, gin and fruit-infused vodka. Visitors can sample it all. Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor is owned by Jimmy Buffet fans, so sampling there is casual and mixed with music.

A fun way to end a cherry tour is the time-honored tradition of cherry-pit spitting. Young and old put their toes up to the line and give it a go. Don’t forget that the pit rolls count in calculating the distance. Game on!

For more information: www.doorcounty.com

Cherry Fun Facts

• The world record for spitting a cherry pit is 93 feet, 6 1⁄2 inches set by Brian “Young Gun” Krause at the International Cherry Pit-Spitting Championship in Eau Clair, Mich., in 2004.

• Cherry trees are a member of the rose family.

• The U.S. has more than 1,000 different varieties of cherry trees.

• Thomas Jefferson grew cherries at Monticello.

• A growing body of science reveals that tart cherries’ unique anti-inflammatory profile may aid muscle recovery and reduce oxidative stress in athletes.

• One serving of frozen tart cherries provides 25 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin A.

• The Montmorency cherry is the most popular tart cherry in America, accounting for 95 percent of all tart-cherry production.

• Tart cherries contain melatonin, a hormone secreted by the brain that regulates the sleep cycle and can help you sleep better.

• Wisconsin’s Door County is the fourth-largest cherry-producing region in the United States.

• The average Montmorency cherry tree produces between 5,000 to 7,000 tart cherries.

• One Montmorency cherry tree produces enough for about 28 cherry pies or 30 bottles of cherry wine.

• Six to eight pounds of tart cherries are needed to make one pound of dried cherries.

• An 8-ounce glass of cherry juice contains about 100 cherries.

• A mechanical harvester takes about seven seconds to shake a cherry tree and can shake 60 to 100 trees an hour. Shaking a tree •shortens the average lifespan by about 15 years, but new trees are continually planted to keep production at peak levels.

• Cherries may help relieve the pain of gout by lowering uric acid thereby reducing inflammation.

• They may also help relieve fibromyalgia when combined with a prescribed health regimen.

Baked Cherry Oatmeal

5 cups regular oatmeal

1 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

4 beaten eggs

1/2 cup safflower oil

2 cups skim or 2-percent milk

2 cups cherries, fresh or canned

In 1 bowl, mix together first 5 dry ingredients. 

In another bowl, mix together next 3 wet ingredients.  

Mix ingredients from both bowls together.

Oil a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex baking dish.

Place a 1/2-inch layer of Door County cherries on the bottom of the dish.

Pour the other ingredients over the top of the fruit.

Bake at 325 degrees for 27 minutes or until firm. Serve warm (or can be reheated in a

microwave).

-- The Bistro Bar & Grille at Liberty Square, Egg Harbor, Wisc. 

Cherry Bounce

1 quart tart cherries (leave the pit in)

2 cups sugar

750-milliliter bottle of brandy, bourbon, vodka, rum or whiskey

Put cherries into large, sterilized glass jar with lid. Add sugar. Cover with liquor. 

Turn until sugar is dissolved and then put in a cool, dark place until Christmas. If you can’t stand the suspense, sample a bit at Thanksgiving and saving the rest until Christmas or New Year’s.

Strain cherries to use as an aperitif or liqueur. Or use cherries as a topping for vanilla ice cream. 

Kirsch-Flambeed Cherry Crepes

For the filling

1 cup cherry preserves

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon kirsch

Mix preserves, lemon juice and kirsch in small bowl.

For the pancakes

3 large eggs

1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk

1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water

3 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons kirsch

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Combine first 9 ingredients in blender.

Blend until smooth. Add flour and blend until smooth. Let batter stand 30 minutes to 1 hour

For flambe and finish

1⁄2 stick unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup kirsch 

1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Mix batter in blender to blend. Light brush a 7- to 8-inch diameter nonstick skillet with butter; heat over medium heat. Using 3 tablespoons batter for each crepe, ladle batter onto pan. Pancake will be thin. Cook pancake until light golden on the bottom, about 30 seconds. Turn pancake over and cook until bottom is pale golden, about 20 seconds (this side is called the private side). Transfer to plate. Repeat with remaining batter, brushing skillet lightly with butter before cooking each pancake and stacking pancakes on plate between sheets of wax paper. Place a spoonful of filling in each crepe and roll.

Melt butter in flambe pan and saute the crepes in the pan for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the remaining kirsch and light, taking great care to not get burned. Top with toasted almonds and whipped cream if desired.

-- Janice Savory Spoon Cooking School, Ellison Bay, Wisc.

Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese, Fennel and Dried Cherries 

4 tablespoons spicy cherry jam

3 tablespoons white-wine vinegar or seasonal vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small shallot, minced very fine (1 tablespoon)

Table salt and ground black pepper

1⁄2 small fennel bulb, cored, trimmed of stalks, and sliced very thin (about 1 cup); fronds chopped coarse (about 1⁄4 cup); extra fronds for garnish

5 ounces lightly packed baby arugula (8 cups)

1⁄2 cup dried cherries or 6 ounces red seedless grapes, halved lengthwise (about 1 cup)

3 ounces Wisconsin artisan blue cheese, crumbled (3/4 cup)

1⁄2 cup chopped pecans, dry toasted

Whisk jam, vinegar, oil, shallot, 1⁄4 teaspoon salt and 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Toss fennel with half of the vinaigrette; let stand 20 minutes. Add arugula, fennel fronds and cherries or grapes; toss with additional dressing and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

Divide salad among individual plates; top each with a portion of blue cheese and pecans.

Serve immediately. Serves 6.

-- Savory Spoon Cooking School, Ellison Bay, Wisc.

Cherry-Stuffed French Toast with Cream Cheese

1 loaf egg bread, unsliced

8-ounce package cheese cream, room temperature

1 cup tart Montmorency cherries, drained, divided

3 eggs

1/2 cup milk

Cinnamon, powdered sugar or Pennsylvania maple syrup for garnish

Trim end crusts and cut bread into 6 1 1/2-inch-thick slices. Make a cut three-quarters down the middle of each slice. Bread will appear to have to separate slices, but will be joined together at the bottom. Set aside.

Mix cream cheese and 3/4 cup of the cherries together, spreading about 1/4 cup of the mixture into the pocket of each slice of bread. To spread the filling, press slices together gently.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and milk together. Dip stuffed slices into egg mixture and coat all sides. Place immediately on a lightly oiled, heated griddle and sprinkle with cinnamon. Cook over medium heat until golden brown, turning to cook second side.

Remove cooked slices from griddle and place on a cutting board. Gently make a diagonal cut through each slice, forming 2 triangles. Arrange 2 triangles on individual plates. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and remaining cherries. Serve with maple syrup and butter.

-- White Gull Inn, Fish Creek, Wisc.

Cherry Lemonade with Vodka

1.5 ounces vodka

8 ounces lemonade (real lemonade is best)

2 ounces cherry juice (we use Cherry De-Lite)

Mix everything and garnish with lemon wedge and maraschino cherries.

-- Carrington Pub and Grill at Landmark Resort, Egg Harbor, Wisc. 

Door County Cherry Margarita

8 ounces cherry juice

8 ounces margarita mix

2 ounces tequila

Into a shaker with ice, combine all ingredients. Shake, and serve.

-- Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Grill, Sister Bay, Wisc. 

Bay Breeze

1½ ounces vodka

Splash of cherry juice or to taste

Ginger ale to fill glass

Combine and serve over ice.

Garnish with a maraschino cherry, optional

-- Rowley’s Bay Resort and Restaurant, Ellison Bay, Wisc.

 


Paulette Dininny: pdininny@hotmail.com

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