A few weeks back I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a cherry immersion event in Traverse City, Michigan with a handful of other food bloggers and experts in the food industry to learn everything there is to know about tart cherries – an industry I knew very little about.
Going into the event, I had never really discerned the difference between tart cherries and sweet cherries and just assumed they were one in the same – news flash, they’re not. Tart cherries are primarily harvested in the sunny, gorgeous state of Michigan (and also in New York, Utah, Washington and Pennsylvania), and because they are more fragile than their sweet counterpart, they rarely make it out of the region fresh, which explains why I was completely unaware of their existence. Instead, they’re typically harvested, then immediately sent along to be processed and dried, or turned into a variety of cherry-infused products (salsa, jams, etc.).
Over the course of three days we learned about how tart cherry trees grow from infancy to their prime fruit picking days, witnessed how the cherries are quite literally shaken off the tree when harvested and toured one of the plants where the cherries actually get harvested.
Of course, a cherry immersion event isn’t complete without copious amounts of taste testing, and good lord did we eat some cherries. Pretty much every meal had tart cherries sprinkled throughout, and we were all lucky enough to be sent home with a ridiculous amount of goodies to further our newfound love of tart cherries.
(Also, I want to note, I was not obligated to write anything about this trip, I just genuinely had a wonderful time and fell in love with the tart cherry!)
Immediately upon receiving my gigantic box of cherry-related items that our hosts very generously shipped to our homes, I started brainstorming different ideas to showcase the dried fruit. One of my favorite preparations I tasted in the week prior was a super simple crostini spread with a little bit of fromage blanc and topped with a spoonful of cherries cooked in red wine – simple, but so delicious and a perfect jumping off point to today’s creamy polenta.
I have a serious infatuation with polenta, I adore the creamy texture, but I especially love how versatile it is, whether its served simply on its own with a touch of butter and parmesan cheese or acting as a side to some sort of protein.
I skip the fancy and frankly, expensive instant polenta that comes in a package in the specialty section of the grocery, and instead always reach for plain old yellow cornmeal. Even with the longer cooking time, the polenta still comes together in under 30 minutes. Here, I started with a three to one ratio of water to milk as my base, seasoned it with a little bit of salt and then brought the mixture to a boil. The cornmeal is very slowly whisked in until smooth and then cooked over a medium-low heat until it’s thick.
At the very end I add in another ½ cup of milk or cream, a couple tablespoons of butter and a good amount of tangy goat cheese.
For the cherries, I took a very similar approach to the crostini. I sautéed onion and garlic in just a touch of butter, then added in a cup of the dried un-sweetened cherries along with some tart cherry concentrate, good quality red wine, salt and a little bit of sugar. The mixture is brought to a boil and then simmered until the liquid reduced.
The tart cherries and liquid is then spooned over the creamy polenta, topped off with a little bit of fried rosemary and ready to be inhaled as is, or as a sidekick to your protein of choice.
As you can see, I also roasted up a few figs, and then spooned the cherries on top, but if you don’t have them available yet, they can easily be left out.
- 1 teaspoon oil, divided
- 6 figs, halved
- 3 cups water
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 1¾ teaspoons salt, divided
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 3 tablespoons butter, divided
- 4 ounces goat cheese
- ¼ cup finely diced onion
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 cup dried tart cherries
- ¼ cup tart cherry concentrate
- 1 cup red wine (merlot, shiraz or pinot noir will work nicely)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss fig halves with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 12-15 minutes until caramelized. Set aside.
- Add water, one cup of milk and salt to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Slowly whisk in cornmeal, making sure there are no lumps. Cook the polenta for 7-8 minutes on a low heat, stirring frequently until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat and stir in remaining milk and 2 tablespoons butter. Add in goat cheese. Set aside.
- In a medium non-stick skillet, heat remaining butter over a medium heat. Add in onion and garlic, sauté 1-2 minutes until softened. Add cherries, concentrate, wine, sugar and remaining salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer until the liquid has reduced by half and become almost syrup-like, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Transfer polenta to serving dish, cover with figs and then spoon cherries and juice on top. Sprinkle with fried rosemary.
- Heat olive oil in a small skillet to a medium heat. One the oil is hot add rosemary leaves, fry for 3-4 seconds until crispy. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.