Pickled fruit? People often ask me that two-word question with a look of mixed astonishment and horror. But in the Anglo-American tradition fruits have commonly been preserved in strong vinegar, along with plenty of sugar, to make sour, sweet, and long-keeping accompaniments for meats. These pickles are similar to English-style fruit chutneys, though not as heavily spiced. Less common but also traditional in North America are lightly sweetened vinegar-picked fruits, such as cherry olives—that is, vinegar-pickled dark cherries that resemble olives more in appearance than taste.
These pickles all have their place. I love sweet pickled figs or plums on the Thanksgiving table, sour pickled grapes on a salad dressed with olive oil alone, and cherry olives with pâté. But for a milder-tasting fruit pickle that complements a wider range of foods and drinks, it’s worth considering leaving out vinegar altogether. Pickling fruits in brine, in the same way as cucumbers and other vegetables, can be another appealing way of extending the season.
I recently applied this method to my favorite wild cherries, which are slightly bitter, too small to pit, and nearly black when ripe. To ensure that the cherries wouldn’t soften too much with fermentation, I picked them when they were not quite ripe but still dark red. And then I devised this recipe:
1 pint (about ¾ pound) small, slightly underripe cherries, stems trimmed to 1 inch or removed 2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise 4 garlic cloves, sliced 2 to 3 sprigs thyme ¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns) 1 Mediterranean bay leaf 2½ teaspoon pickling salt 1½ cups water
Rinse the cherries well, and put them into a clean quart jar along with the peppers, garlic, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaf. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the cherries. They won’t float—at least mine don’t—so you shouldn’t need to weight them.
Cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature for about a week. Check occasionally for yeast or mold, and promptly skim off any that appears. When the cherries taste at once briny, tart, and a little spicy, cap the jar and refrigerate it. Serve the cherries cold.
I like brined cherries as a small, slow, thoughtful snack, because even for me they are strange and hard to categorize. They are good with drinks before dinner; upon first tasting them my son Ben immediately wanted to try one in a martini. Use a gin with plenty of juniper, he recommends, but light on other botanicals.
Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try Than my dear wife’s good melon pie. I get a melon from the pit And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.”
I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins ¼ cup brandy 1 5-pound citron melon 1 cup sugar 1 orange 1 lemon 2 cinnamon sticks 2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack–and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.
Look what I found in the liquor store in Albany, Oregon, among the flavored vodkas and cheap tequilas! I wasn’t looking for maraschino (pronounced maraSKEEno), but finding it made my day. It’s cherry season in the Willamette Valley, a region once well-dotted with cherry orchards. Almost all have long since been cut down, but the birds continually replant the feral descendants of the Bings, Lamberts, and Royal Annes that once made our nurserymen and farmers so proud. The fruit of the cherry trees that manage to grow up, mostly along the edges of farmed fields, can be large or small, red or yellow or black, and sweet or sour or bitter. My favorite tree, which grew from a seedling beside our shed, annually produces hundreds of pounds of small, black, slightly bitter fruits.
Because these cherries are too small to pit, I’ve had to find uncommon ways to preserve them. This was the same quandary faced hundreds of years ago by the people of Dalmatia, a region of modern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea where thrived the marasca cherry, a small, dark, slightly bitter variant of the sour morello. Sixteenth-century Dominican monks in Zadar (or Zara, as the name is still spelled on the Luxardo label) crushed the cherries along with their pits and some of their leaves and probably added some honey before distilling the fermented mash. The product, aged in white ash and then sweetened with cane sugar, became known as rosolj, “sun dew.” In the eighteenth century, rosolj was renamed maraschino and relished by the wealthy all over Europe.
Girolamo Luxardo began making maraschino in 1821. Luxardo’s double-distilled clear liqueur is sweet, viscous, and mildly bitter, with a complex flavor and aroma that you probably wouldn’t recognize as cherry or almond. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, Luxardo maraschinowas available in the United States, where bartenders put it in cocktails. By the late 1800s, marasca cherries soaked in maraschino had also become popular. They were the ultimate cocktail garnish.
Prohibition put an end to the importation of both maraschino and maraschino cherries. So in the 1920s Ernest Wiegand, a professor at Oregon Agricultural College, devised a cheap, nonalcoholic substitute for maraschino cherries, using Oregon’s big, fleshy, pale Royal Annes. He first soaked them in a salt-and-alum brine, and then he packed them in sugar syrup doctored with food coloring, acid, and almond extract. His shiny crimson knockoffs soon took the place of maraschino cherries in cocktails, in “fruit cocktails” (which had gradually lost their liquor but continued to be served in cocktail glasses), and atop sundaes.
At the request of readers, I included the home version of Wiegand’s recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. But I personally preferred to soak my cherries in brandy. I’d never tasted marascas, but they sounded quite similar to my own favorite cherries. I figured that my brandied cherries, with sugar and a little almond extract added, must be pretty close in taste to true maraschino cherries. A couple of years ago I tried my brandied cherries on a young woman from northern Italy. They did taste something like maraschinos, she said. But they weren’t the same.
This year I have what I need to make almost-true maraschino cherries—I have maraschino. So here’s my new recipe: Fill a jar with stemmed sour cherries (preferably small dark ones with a touch of bitterness). Cover the cherries with maraschino. For a pint jar, you’ll need about a cup of liqueur. Cover the jar, and put it in a cupboard. Wait a few weeks or months. Then eat your cherries and drink your now dark and frankly cherry-flavored liqueur, over ice, in a cocktail or fruit cocktail, or however else you like.
I’ll let you know come fall how I like my almost-maraschino cherries. In the meantime, let’s hope that one of our new little distilleries considers producing an Oregon version of maraschino liqueur.
UPDATE 2022: The almost-maraschino cherries were heavenly. My currant black cherry tree, grown from a scion of the seedling tree on our farm, produced a sizeable crop here in town last year. Although I greedily ate every one of those cherries out of hand, this year I hope to make almost-maraschino cherries once again.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my ‘Pineapple’ quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with a pineapple-like scent.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, roast them with vegetables, bake them like apples, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, paste (membrillo), and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.