Saturday, August 8, 2009

Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries (With Bread, Arugula and Goat Cheese)

This is one of my favorite times of year. The pace of summer is more relaxed than it is during the school year, and the warmer weather almost justifies indulging in ice cream on a daily basis. It’s also my birthday month, which means that I am ready to celebrate with friends any day this month, not just on my actual birthday. And if those weren’t reasons enough to be happy, it is also CHERRY SEASON!

Cherries have long been my favorite fruit. As a kid I used to devour huge bowlfuls of them in the summers, and the first time I tried a dried cherry, I thought it blew the poor raisin way out of the water. I had several birthdays where I opted for a freshly baked cherry pie over a birthday cake. Black forest cake was a revelation to my 9-year-old self, for it combined three of my favorite things together in one decadent cake: chocolate, whipped cream and cherries. (Glory hallelujah!)

Perhaps cherries seem all the more special to me because their season is so short, only about two months at best. In New York City where there are fruit vendors on many street corners, it is always a momentous day when the cherries first appear at the fruit stands, usually in the middle of June. They typically start out at $4 a pound, but as the summer progresses, the prices drop radically as the cherries become all the more plentiful. It is nearly impossible for me to walk by one of these fruit vendors boasting beautiful cherries without picking up yet another pound or three to take home.

A ripe cherry is firm yet supple, bursting with sweetness and dripping with dark burgundy juice that stains my lips a gorgeous plummy color. I also love the Rainier cherries, with their rosy peach-colored flesh and a taste that is a lighter soprano timbre in contrast to the dark Bing cherries’ deep alto quality. These Rainier cherries have an even shorter season than their darker counterparts, and I am savoring them while I can.

I usually don’t tinker with these peak season cherries, eating an unabashededly big bowl of them for breakfast, an afternoon pick-me-up, or a post-show late night snack. But I was intrigued by Molly Wizenberg’s recipe for Bread Salad with Cherries, Arugula and Goat Cheese in her delightful culinary memoir, A Homemade Life. I’ve reread the book twice since it debuted in March, and I’ve had very satisfying results with the dozen recipes I’ve tried. I trusted that Molly wouldn’t steer me wrong, even with this seemingly unusual combination of ingredients.

I decided to try this recipe when Laura came over for lunch the other day, for I had promised her a fun summer salad with saffron ice cream for dessert. I figured that if I was going to the effort of pitting cherries and turning the oven on for croutons, I might as well make an extra-large batch of it so that I’d have some left over for an afternoon snack or a light dinner. But as soon as we tucked into our salads, I just knew we wouldn’t have any leftovers.

This marvelous salad was a distinct study in contrasts between the four main players. A few slices from a rustic peasant loaf—torn into rough pieces, tossed with olive oil and toasted till crisp—formed the base of the salad. These golden croutons were as crunchy as the pitted sweet cherry halves were succulent and plush, while peppery tender baby arugula leaves and creamy mild soft goat cheese rounded out the salad. A little olive oil bound this lively quartet together, which was then heightened with my favorite aged balsamic vinegar that echoed the sweet black honey notes of the cherries. Needless to say, Laura and I devoured it, leaving nothing left in the salad bowl other than a few stray crumbs.

Every year I always pray that the cherries will still be around on August 17th so that I can enjoy them my birthday. I usually have luck, and I hope that this year will not be an exception. In the meantime I’m going to make this salad as often as I can in these next two weeks, and I hope you’ll try it for yourself too.

Adapted from a recipe in A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

Since we’re enjoying all that summer has to offer at this time, I’ve found that a few torn fresh basil leaves add an additional summery and fragrant note to this beautiful salad. I made this salad with a combination of Bing and Rainier cherries because that's what I had on hand.

6 ounces rustic white bread, torn into rough 1-inch pieces
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 pound cherries, pitted and sliced in half
Good balsamic vinegar
3 cups of baby arugula leaves
a handful of torn fresh basil leaves (optional)
3 ounces soft goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Spread the bread pieces in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through the baking time, until the bread cubes are toasted and lightly golden.

Turn the hot toasted bread cubes into a large bowl and toss with the minced garlic. Let cool for a few minutes, then add the cherries. Toss the bread and cherries with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust for seasoning, adding oil and vinegar as necessary so that both the bread and cherries taste good to you when you taste them individually.

Add the arugula and basil leaves (if using), and drizzle with a bit more olive oil and balsamic so that the leaves are lightly coated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss the whole salad together and crumble the goat cheese over the top. Serves 4 as a salad course, or 2 main course servings, especially if your names are Louise and Laura.

1 comment:

Jenna said...

This salad looks absolutely WONDERFUL!!!! I can just picture sitting at your table surrounded by happy yellow walls enjoying a plateful with one of my favorite people, enjoying one of my favorite views! xoxo