Just on the edge of the vegetable garden my Hungarian grandparents had on their Indiana farm was a cherry tree. The sprawling branches thick with leaves provided a welcome canopy on hot, sunny days — and a perfect climbing structure for fun-loving children.
I do remember climbing very carefully into the tree, not too high, but just far enough off the ground to be able to reach for ripe cherries that I would pop into my mouth, spitting the hard-as-stone pits onto the earth below. And, thus began my insatiable desire for sweet, rosy cherries.
Several years ago, I brought a handful of Rainier cherries home from the grocery store. I couldn’t resist their characteristic rosy blush with a warm, sunny undertone. I ate one. I was hooked. It was the sweetest, most delicious cherry I had ever eaten. The creamy colored flesh was juicy and much more flavorful than the traditional bing cherries I was used to eating. The Washington Rainier was cherry perfection.
Yesterday I was in cherry heaven when I had lunch at the Hotel Donaldson (affectionately referred to as HoDo by all the locals) in downtown Fargo. Executive Chef Tim Fischer, a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Midwest, and his team were chosen to represent North Dakota in the Northwest Cherries Tree-to-Table campaign. In celebration of National Rainier Cherry Day, which was yesterday, Chef Fischer agreed to highlight 40 pounds of Rainier cherries in dishes his diners could not resist.
This Executive Chef and his team did not disappoint.
Sous Chef Ryan Nitschke created a sensational salad of fresh butter lettuce, mild goat cheese, roasted walnuts and warm cherry and prosciutto vinaigrette.
Nitschke’s luncheon salad would have been all I needed, but how could I pass up a serving of Frozen Maize Cheesecake, covered with ground caramel corn and topped with pitted and halved Rainier cherries in a not-too-sweet syrup? A pretty edible flower, plucked from the HoDo’s rooftop garden, along with a dark smear of sweetened huitlacoche, turned the plated dessert into a masterful work of art.
What is huitlacoche, you ask? Well, it’s Mexican corn fungus. It’s a delicacy. I can’t really describe the flavor — maybe a little sweet, a bit sour, slightly earthy, musky — it was not like anything I’ve ever tasted. All I know for sure, is that the sweetened huitlacoche brought perfect balance to the sweet cherries and cheesecake with caramel corn. Expertly developed with a sensational blend of flavors, so gourmet and exactly the surprise you would expect coming from the kitchen team of a James Beard-nominated chef.
Sous Chef Ryan Nitschke is definitely creative and knows exactly how to combine flavor and texture that excites the tastebuds.
Nitschke assured me enough Washington Rainier cherries were set aside so that the salad and the frozen maize cheesecake could be featured on the HoDo lunch menu all this week. If you’re in the mood for dinner at the HoDo this week, you will have the opportunity to enjoy a five-course Rainier cherry-tasting meal created by Executive Chef Tim Fischer. Call ahead, though. These gourmet dinners featuring cherries will be available only as long as the 40 pounds of Rainier cherries from the Tree-to-Table promotion last.
You can find the participating Tree-to-Table restaurant in your state by clicking here and then click on your state on the map.
I checked with grocery stores in Bemidji and Fargo and discovered Rainier cherries have just begun making their appearance, with prices ranging from around $7.00 to $10.00 per pound. I think they are worth every penny. Pick up a few and see for yourself!
And, if you buy a few extra Rainiers, stuff them with cream cheese whipped up with almonds and orange zest and serve them in a pool of rich chocolate sauce. The recipe is in my column this week. Click here for the details.
While you do that, I’m off to the store to buy some Rainier cherries! Boy, I’ve come a long way with cherries since my tree-climbing days.