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In early summer—a season brimming with fresh, green and delicious foods—there is one fruit that is, well, the cherry on top.

There are hundreds of cherry varieties, mostly of the Prunus cerasus (sour or tart) or Prunus avium (sweet) species. Both of these species are believed to have originated in eastern Europe and western Asia, and both thrive in much of the Hudson Valley.

Cherry season in the Hudson Valley varies slightly, depending, of course, on the weather, where the farm is located and the cherry variety, but it generally begins in early June and can last through the end of July for some varieties. A number of farms offer pick-your-own options in season. Cherries are not suited for extended storage; they should be enjoyed fresh. For long-term enjoyment, they can be frozen or made into preserves.

According to the USDA, a cup of fresh cherries (without pits) has fewer than 100 calories and contains antioxidants and phytochemicals, vitamins A and C, other nutrients and fiber. Some traditional remedies include sour cherry juice to reduce inflammation, improve digestion, and help with insomnia and weight loss, though no clinical verification of these claims could be found.

Sweet cherries are best for eating fresh. A few chopped or sliced sweet cherries tossed into a chicken or ham salad will give the flavor a delightful twist. They are tasty when added to sandwiches as a substitute for tomatoes (especially with ham or turkey; ditto for cheese). Try adding fresh sweet cherries to a mixture of jalapeños, onion, cilantro, olive oil (optional), lime or orange juice to make a springtime salsa (see recipe) for dipping with corn- or pita chips or to top chicken or veggie burgers on the grill.

Red sour cherries, a light red variety that includes the well-known Montmorency, are popular for baking in pies, muffins, turnovers and cakes, or turned into jellies, jams and chutneys.

Dark sour or black sour cherries also make delicious jelly, jam, salsa and chutney, but they’re especially rewarding steeped in alcohol, then used for topping desserts or adding to drinks. Perhaps the most famous cherry for this use is the Morello. (This cherry is not really a variety, but rather a subgroup of sour cherries with very dark skin and dark red juice and flesh.) They can be found in fine food stores preserved in glass.

Extending the storage life of cherries is easy: Just freeze them. (Wash, pit and arrange them in a single layer on a tray or cookie sheet lined with parchment or wax paper and place in a freezer. No blanching is necessary. After the cherries are frozen solid, they should be stored in a freezer bag or other freezer-safe container.) Frozen cherries retain most of their flavor for six to 12 months, depending on how quickly they were frozen and how cold the freezer gets. If you have a sweet tooth, pack them in a very light sugar syrup and then freeze.

Of course, cherries have pits. (If there is a polite way to spit out the pits while you’re blissfully enjoying a handful of fresh cherries, we haven’t seen it yet, but then, who cares?) For processing a lot of cherries in preparation for cooking, a mechanical pitter comes in handy. Cherry pitters can be found in most kitchen supply stores or some supermarkets. There are several types; all are relatively inexpensive and, one way or another, they all do what they’re supposed to do. In a pinch, the narrow end of a chopstick, a pastry bag tip or a (non-paper) drinking straw can also be used to push that infernal seed out of the fruit.      

Come and Get ’em

Depending on weather conditions, sweet red cherry picking usually begins mid- to late-June and runs to mid-July. Sour cherries begin to ripen early- to mid-July. Here are some farms that offer pick-your-own cherries; check with the individual farm websites for updates on this year’s crop.

Fishkill Farms
9 Fishkill Farm Rd, Hopewell Jct
(845) 897-4377; fishkillfarms.com
Sweet red cherries, golden sweet cherries, Hungarian tart cherries, Montmorency.

Fix Brothers Farm
215 White Birch Rd, Hudson
(518) 828-4401; fixbrosfruitfarm.com
Sweet cherries, red sour cherries, black sour cherries. 

Lawrence Farms Orchards
306 Frozen Ridge Rd, Newburgh
(845) 562-4268
Sweet and sour cherries.

Prospect Hill Orchards
340 Milton Tpk, Milton
845-795-2383; prospecthillorchards.com
Sweet red cherries, golden sweet cherries, sour cherries.