- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Surrounded by cherry trees on Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, a point off Lake Michigan where the waves thrash the shores, I was reminded of a lesson we all learned in grammar school.

When Founding Father and first President George Washington was a little boy, his father gave him a new hatchet. As legend has it, he was so eager to use it that he cut down a small cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George said, “Yes, Father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree with my hatchet.”

The story, though of doubtful authenticity, is a good lesson for all of us, especially today when we see so many people bearing the hard consequences of their lying.

A tastier, although less significant, lesson comes from my trip to Door County, close to Traverse City, Mich., the self-proclaimed cherry capital of the world.

While cherries now come fresh, frozen or dried, drying cherries is probably the oldest form of preservation and a method that has taken on more significance since dried fruit is so popular. I often throw dried cherries on winter salads, counterbalancing the sweetness with some walnuts, or into pilafs along with toasted pine nuts.

At Country Ovens in Forestville, Wis., I tasted dried cherry cookies, easily as popular in the region as oatmeal raisin cookies. In the 1980s, owners Mike and Kathy Johnson, facing high interest rates and shrinking crop prices on their dairy farm, began looking for additional income during the winter.

At that time, few people were drying cherries commercially.

So Mike, his wife Kathy and their four children started drying them with a home dehydrator and a supply of frozen cherries, which they sprinkled with sugar to preserve the color. It worked.

A year later, they established Country Ovens, which now produces about a million pounds of dried cherries per year. From 8 pounds of fresh cherries, the Johnsons produce 1 pound of dried cherries. They also process dried cranberries and blueberries, which they sell at their store and on their Web site, www.countryovens.com.

As for fresh cherries, we can buy good frozen ones, or do as Gisella Brogan, a home cook born in Germany who lives in Green Bay, Wis., does. “I buy pitted Montmorency sour cherries in bulk, by the gallon, in the summer. Then I freeze them and use them as I want during the year.”

From Miss Brogan, I learned how to make rote grost, a simple-to-prepare and delicious pudding served with vanilla sauce or ice cream, a recipe she brought with her from Germany. This typical German fruit pudding, thickened with cornstarch, is similar to what New Englanders call a flummery, a grunt or a slump.

Another pudding, this one served hot and with caramel sauce, is made in the microwave. What is beautiful about this very old American recipe, originally made with cranberries, is that you can make the sauce and the pudding in advance and just reheat the sauce in the microwave. It is perfect on a cold winter’s day.

This Presidents Day, why not try these recipes? They’re as simple and straightforward as the mythic lesson taught to us by our Founding Father, George Washington. No lie.

Pilav with dried cherries and pine nuts

This recipe was adapted from Ms. Nathan’s “The Foods of Israel Today” (Knopf).

2 ounces (about 1 cup) uncooked dry vermicelli or other thin spaghetti

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 cups long-grain rice

4 cups water or chicken broth

About 1 teaspoon salt

1 large onion, diced

1/4 cup pine nuts or blanched almonds

1/4 cup dried cherries

Crumble pasta strands into pieces about 2 inches long. In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil and cook pasta strands until golden, stirring constantly. This will only take a minute or two. Add rice and stir-fry for a few more minutes. Then add water or broth and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the rice is cooked.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a small frying pan and saute onion slowly until golden, stirring occasionally. Then add pine nuts or almonds and dried cherries and saute to toast nuts lightly.

Turn rice and noodles onto a platter and fluff with a fork. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Serve sprinkled with onion, nuts and dried cherries.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Oatmeal and dried cherry cookies

This recipe is from Ms. Nathan’s “The New American Cooking” (Knopf).

2 sticks ( pound) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 cups sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

teaspoon salt

3 cups uncooked old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional

2 cups dried cherries

Put butter and both sugars in bowl of mixer and beat until creamy and pale. Add eggs, one at a time, waiting until the first is fully incorporated before adding the second, then add vanilla. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and gradually pour into bowl.

Stir in oats, nuts, if using, and dried cherries, mixing well. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto two cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cool before removing from the cookie sheets. Repeat with remaining batter.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Rote grost (Cold cherry pudding)

This recipe was adapted from one provided by Gisella Brogan.

2 cups dark sweet cherries, pitted

cup sugar

cup water

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Juice of lemon (about 1 tablespoon)

teaspoon cinnamon

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Put cherries, sugar and cup water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in cornstarch, lemon juice and cinnamon, and simmer for a few minutes until mixture thickens. Cool, taste and adjust seasonings. Pour into serving bowl and refrigerate until serving.

Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Makes 5 to 8 servings.

Cherry pudding with caramel sauce

This recipe was adapted from one provided by Paddy Bowman and Kristin Eddy.

Butter for greasing baking dish

3 cups sour cherries, pitted

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup sugar

teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided

1 cup milk

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

teaspoon vanilla

Grease a souffle dish and set aside. Rinse and drain cherries.

Place flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Stir in 4 tablespoons melted butter and milk. Add cherries and stir.

Pour into prepared souffle dish and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

To make caramel sauce, stir brown sugar into remaining melted butter in a microwavable bowl. Cover and cook on high for one minute.

Carefully remove from the microwave, stir and cook for another minute. Remove, stir in cream and cook another minute or two until smooth. Then stir in vanilla and serve alongside or over pudding.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Joan Nathan is also the author of “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf).

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