Jessica Johnson, 13, of Ashland samples the goods of cherry grower Judie Rodinsky at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland in 2009. - Bob Pennell

Sweet anticipation

Rain persisting into June put something of a damper on summer's outlook, but it certainly spurred lush garden growth.

Although the cauliflower and pea harvests would be delayed a few weeks, I took comfort in the potatoes' promising start and the most beautiful heads of lettuce to develop in my mother-in-law's decades of gardening.

Cauliflower, peas and potatoes I can wait for. But I can hardly wait to satisfy curiosity around cherries. Will they personify July, challenging pickers to seize the traditionally short season? Or will cherries pass through with hardly a blip on summertime menus?

The anticipation is sweet after some bitter disappointments.

In years past, the Bing cherry tree in the southwest corner of my garden produced such remarkable crops that we felt compelled to share with friends. Just a short distance away resides a Royal Ann tree that, while not as productive, whets our appetites for heartier Bings with its delicate, blushing fruit.

I'm well aware that this year's late rains may cause cherries to split — a misfortune following last year's spring freeze that decimated cherries, along with so many Rogue Valley fruits. My own trees fell prey to birds before their fruit had even ripened, an unforeseen hazard given previous years' production of enough cherries to satisfy us, plus a few feathered freeloaders.

Southern Oregon cherry growers have weathered some rough climes since 2009, a "wonderful cherry year" in the words of Winston orchardist Judie Rodinsky, who has attended Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Markets in Medford and Ashland since 1991. She markets her organic Corum, Bing, Van, Lambert and pie cherries under the slogan: "Try one; you know you want to."

Where cherries are concerned, of course, it's almost impossible to eat just one. Hardly deterred by the fruit's stones, I could put away a pound almost without pause — an expensive snack at supermarket prices or Rodinsky's $4 per pint.

Scarcity this year likely will push prices even higher. So consider U-picking at several Rogue Valley orchards: Valley View outside Ashland (call 541-488-2840 for information) or Sugar Plum Acres near Talent (www.sugarplumacres.info).

With homegrown fruit on my hands, I didn't balk at spending $15.99 for a cherry-stoner a few years back. Given that uses for this device are as limited as cherry season, itself, the most basic, plastic model suffices. A cherry-stoner, however, makes the chore of pitting several hundred cherries pass in about 15 minutes.

While I love cherry preserves, the fruit freezes particularly well, lending itself to more diverse preparations. Many experts recommend freezing cherries after coating with sugar. I find this unnecessary. Unless your sole goal is pies or other desserts, the addition of sugar stymies cherries' use in savory dishes.

Some thrifty cooks also recommend applying an anti-browning agent, such as Ball Fruit-Fresh, to cherries. I likewise skip this step, figuring I can reduce cherries to a sauce or compote if freezing saps too much of their color.

My preferred method is to wash, pit and spread cherries in a single layer on baking sheets before freezing, then repackaging in a resealable freezer bag. Promoting a film of ice around every cherry means they freely flow from the bag, instead of clumping up, for easier use.

Picking a fair number of berries every summer, I handle them all this way. So I love the idea of combining cherries with the full spectrum of cane berries and blueberries in this recipe.

I may even add coastal huckleberries to the mix. Despite their wild origins, they never leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Read Sarah Lemon's blog, The Whole Dish, at www.mailtribune.com/wholedish or follow The Whole Dish on Twitter.

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