I just returned from a refreshing trip to Portland, Oregon where the weather was perfect (read: average of 75 degrees and not humid), the hipsters were avoiding the mainstream to the point of it being mainstream, and the food was fresh, local and simply outstanding. Although the season is short-lived, summertime in the Pacific Northwest brings a veritable bounty of produce. Farmers' markets are lined with displays of lettuces, mushrooms and an amazing array of berries.
One of the stellar meals that I had the privilege of enjoying was a delicious brunch at Tasty 'n Sons in the northeast quadrant of the city. It started with the best Bloody Mary I've ever had (made with locally-distilled vodka, of course) and ended with a Moroccan chicken hash with harissa cream, topped with a perfectly cooked farm-fresh egg. But in between, there were the baked cherries with Tallegio cheese. Served hot and bubbly in a small earthenware crock, this dish was simplicity at its finest. The black cherries are at the peak of their season right now, and paired with the tangy, musty, creamy melted Tallegio — I could not get enough.
After returning to Tampa with the wonderful flavor memories still in the forefront of my food-obsessed mind, I decided to recreate the baked cherries. I tweaked it a little by adding some lavender, but really it's all about the cherries being at the perfect stage of sweet/tart ripeness — as they are right now. This dish is so simple and easy to make, yet has that "wow" factor due to the quality of the ingredients and the interesting flavor and texture combination. It's perfect for a summertime dinner party first course, or if you want to be really fancy, serve it as a dessert.
A few notes about this recipe:
• Tallegio cheese is a washed-rind Italian cheese with a strong aroma and a mild tangy flavor, similar to a ripe brie. If this isn't your cup of tea feel free to use a different cheese. I would suggest Havarti, or even a nice goat cheese.
• If you have a difficult time locating dried lavender, try looking at a specialty spice shop. I purchase mine at VSpicery in South Tampa (2913 West Cypress St., Tampa, 813-870-1133, vspicery.com). Or you can omit it altogether and substitute it with another herb such as basil.
• I recommend investing in a cherry pitter, especially if you purchase cherries fairly often. Removing the pits by hand is tedious, and very messy. (Believe me, I know from experience.)
Baked cherries with lavender and Tallegio
2 pounds black cherries, stemmed and pitted
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 tablespoon dried lavender
4 ounces Tallegio cheese
8 thick slices Cuban bread (or any quality bread that you like)
1. In a large bowl, combine the pitted cherries, salt and lavender. Let sit, covered and refrigerated, for at least two hours to allow the cherries to release their juices (overnight is best).
2. Divide the cherries with the juice into 4 small ovenproof crocks or ramekins. Top each with a thickly sliced piece of Tallegio (it's important that it is sliced thick, otherwise by the time your cherries are hot, the cheese will have melted away to nothing).
3. Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 8-10 minutes until the cherries are bubbling and the cheese is melted. Serve with toasted bread for sopping up the sweet juices.