Aside from a soft-crusted, sugar-dusted pie, there is little reason to cook a cherry. A jam, glowing jewel-like on the breakfast table, can be a fine thing if you have bothered to remove the stones; hell if you haven’t. But, other than that, cherries are best eaten from the bag or, better still, served cold, in a bowl of ice cubes that you have crushed to a near slush-puppy texture.
An exception is a pickled cherry. A snap of sweet and sour to bring out the best in a slice of ham, a fillet of oily fish such as a tuna steak or a fillet of silver-skinned mackerel. When I say pickled, I don’t mean the fruit should be kept lurking in a jar of malt vinegar and spices for six months. I mean a quick 20-minute pickle, bright as a button, with star anise, black peppercorns, mild red wine and vinegar, and just enough sugar to stop your lips smarting.
Earlier this week I simmered a ham in apple juice and served the amber broth with a dose of pickled cherries. The faintly salty cooking liquor and sour cherries were a perfect balance for the sweet, thick-cut meat and fat. An initial boiling in water prevented an over-salty broth. Skimming the surface regularly kept the juices clear and bright.
The next day we ate the ham cold, cut thinner this time, with a spinach salad (dressing: cider vinegar, walnut oil, grain mustard, lemon juice) with more of the cherries and their juice. Afterwards, greedy for more of the pickled fruit, we ate thick yogurt sweetened with whipped cream, a pinch of sugar and the meanest seasoning of ground cinnamon. We then tipped a tiny spoonful of the cherries over the folds of creamy, spice-flecked yogurt.
I used dark, sweet dessert cherries for this. If you are using sour fruit, then add a little more sugar. Makes 500g of pickled cherries.
red-wine vinegar 125ml
red wine 375ml
sugar 2 tbsp
black peppercorns 1 tsp
star anise 2 whole
Pull the cherries from their stalks, then halve each fruit and remove the stones. Put the stoned cherries into a stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan then pour in the vinegar and red wine and bring to the boil. Stir in the sugar, the peppercorns and the star anise then lower the heat so the liquid bubbles gently for 3 or 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and leave the mixture to cool.
Grilled mackerel, pickled cherries and samphire
The sour pickling juice of the cherries does the work of lemon juice here, balancing the oily richness of the fish. A few spoonfuls over the hot fish are as important as the cherries themselves.
mackerel fillets 4
olive oil 2 tbsp
samphire 2 handfuls
pickled cherries 6 tbsp
Check the mackerel fillets for any stray bones, then place them skin-side down on a lined grill pan. Brush them lightly with olive oil, then season with a little salt. Cook under an overhead grill or over the bars of a hot grill for four minutes on each side until lightly cooked through. (The advantage of cooking over a grill is that you will have crisp skin, too, but an overhead grill works well enough.)
Rinse the samphire in cold running water and trim any tough roots. Put the samphire in a bowl and add the cherries and their juices. Toss the cherries and samphire and leave for a few minutes while the mackerel cooks. Place a bed of samphire and cherries on two plates, spoon over the cherry pickling liquor, then place a couple of fillets on each. Spoon over a little more pickling liquor.
Gammon with apple juice and pickled cherries
The initial boiling and rinsing of the meat is essential, preventing the broth becoming cloudy and reducing the saltiness. Do this twice if you fear your ham is on the salty side. Serves 4
ham or gammon joint 1.5kg, rolled and tied
water 1 litre
apple juice 1 litre
bay leaves 2
cooking liquor from the ham
pickled cherries 12 tbsp
Put the piece of gammon in a large, deep pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat so the water doesn’t boil over, and leave to cook for 20 minutes.
Carefully pour the water away and return the pan to the heat. Pour in the litre of water and the apple juice, then tuck in the bay leaves. Add the peppercorns and cloves and bring to the boil. If any froth comes to the surface, remove it with a draining spoon. When every bit of froth has been removed and the liquid is clear, lower the heat so it bubbles gently, then partially cover with a lid.
Let the gammon cook for about 60-90 minutes, checking the liquid level from time to time and turning the meat carefully once or twice to ensure even cooking. Switch off the heat but leave the meat in the cooking liquor.
Lift the meat out and place it on a carving board. Taste the cooking liquid, correct the seasoning if necessary. Carve the meat into thick slices and put two or three per person into shallow dishes or deep plates. Ladle some of the cooking broth over each then add 2 or 3 tablespoons of pickled cherries and some of their liquid over each. Serve with spoons.