Gorgeous glossy cherries, all jammy and plump with juice, are the little treasures of the fruit bowl. Although there are many different types, flavour wise they fall into two distinct categories: sweet cherries, which can be eaten as is, or the sour-tart variety, such as Morello or Montmorency, which are better suited to cooking.
Cast your gaze about the about the Middle East and you’ll discover a proliferation of recipes that celebrate this ingredient. From Persian rice flecked golden with saffron and studded with fresh cherries to rich lamb kofta drizzled with a sweet, tangy cherry sauce and tall glasses of pastel-hued sharbateh albaloo, there is plenty in this region for fans of the fruit. That said, this is an ingredient that also feels quintessentially British. There’s something about cherries that brings to mind a dreamy, idealized England of many years ago, when the pace of life was slower and grassy orchards were filled with cherry trees heavy with ruby red orbs.
Heading back to the here and now, cherries are much talked about for their high antioxidant count and have anti-inflammatory properties too, as well being a good source of fibre, vitamins and essential minerals. Health experts suggest that you’ll need to eat fourteen cherries for a portion to count as one of your five-a-day, and while doing so might initially sound like rather a lot to, it is certainly no hardship.
When buying cherries seek out those that feel tender to the touch and have taut, unblemished skin with a nice shine. It’s also well worth smelling them – a ripe cherry will have a floral, vaguely almond-like aroma. Thanks in part to this flavour note the fruit makes a harmonious match with the nut itself. To see what we mean try adding a dash of almond extract to a cherry pie filling, let the frangipane layer in a Bakewell tart be lifted by cherry (rather than more traditional raspberry) jam or simply serve a big bowl of cherries scattered with toasted almonds and a bowl of softly whipped cream on the side.
If you’re on the hunt for a dessert for Valentine’s Day though we say look no further than our recipe for individual cherry and almond clafoutis. This dish really couldn’t be simpler to prepare; make the sweet, almond-flavoured batter the night before and decide whether or not you’re going to pit your cherries too – tradition says it’s perfectly acceptable to leave the stones in, but you might want to make the extra effort in the spirit of romance. On the evening itself all you need do is pour the batter into two into shallow dishes, dot with fruit and bake.
If your Valentine’s dessert is sorted, but the main course is still undecided might we suggest a kale, bresaola and balsamic-cherry salad finished with milky, mild goats’ cheese and toasted almonds? Once again, there’s minimal cooking involved (just the gentle roasting of the fruit) yet the dish feels special, looks and tastes great and is filling without being heavy. In other words, it’s perfect for the 14th.
While it’s perfectly acceptable to buy Chinese five-spice powder ready-made – we all lead busy lives and timesaving shortcuts are welcome – if the idea appeals it really is worth having a go at making your own.
The classic ingredients for this ancient spice mix that is so popular in Chinese cooking typically features sweet cinnamon and ground cloves, aniseed-like fennel seeds, tongue-tingling Szechuan peppercorns and star anise. The result is something special: a bright, beguiling, complex-tasting mix of sweet, sour, bitter, salty flavour that add layers of interest and a sense of the exotic each and every time it is used.
The nice thing about making own of course is that you can tinker with the ratios of the spices, until you stumble upon your own preferred blend. For a superior end result grind the spices yourself in a pestle and mortar rather then buying them in powdered form. Once you do so, store in an airtight container away from direct sunlight.
Five-spice can be used to season meat with great success: try mixing with olive oil and brushing over skin-on duck breasts before roasting or rolling a room temperature steak in the powder just seconds before it’s deposited in a searing hot pan. Thanks to its punchy, distinctive flavour this is an ingredient capable of taking vegetable dishes to the next level as well. At a time when for health and environmental reasons many of us are trying to eat less meat, this is welcome news. A winter vegetable stir-fry made with parsnips, leafy Brussels sprouts, celeriac or turnips and a few of the meatier mushrooms such as Portobello and shiitake all quickly wok-cooked and tossed with soy sauce, five-spice and a dash of honey is a weeknight supper solution if there ever was one. And while serving a vegetarian main course to a group of meat eaters can feel like a bold move for a dinner party, try our recipe for succulent, smoky, charred around the edges aubergine strewn with molasses drenched pomegranate seeds and accompanied by tender rice and zesty, garlicky labneh and we really don’t think anyone will complain.
Despite what you may think, five-spice isn’t just for savoury dishes; it’s brilliant for adding warmth and interest to desserts and bakes too. If a recipe calls for cinnamon – banana bread, apple crumble, baklava or rice pudding, for example – use five-spice instead and see if you agree. For something tried, tested, and dutifully devoured, you really can’t go wrong with this five-spice malt loaf with mascarpone though.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PROP STYLING: SUKAINA RAJABALI
WORDS, RECIPES AND FOOD STYLING: SARAH PRICE