Lots of crops seem to be arriving a bit early this year; only the other week I was driving to Jeremy King's wedding in Kent, and I passed lots of roadside stands selling cherries. At that point we didn't even have them in the restaurants, so they must have been virtually the season's first pickings.
When they're in season, I love having a bowl of cherries in the fridge and bringing them out for breakfast, or to nibble on – or for dinner with a bit of cheese to avoid going to the trouble of making dessert. I often find at a dinner party that your guests will be much more appreciative of something simple, pure and tasty – as demonstrated by these easy recipes.
Crumbles aren't just for autumn and winter – fruits such as cherries or even firmer berries such as blackcurrants and blueberries (as they come into season) make a light, fresh crumble. I quite like adding a few nuts and seeds to a crumble topping, as it adds both texture and flavour.
400g cherries, stoned
3tbsp caster sugar
For the topping
80g cold butter, cut into small pieces
160g plain flour
90g soft brown sugar
60-80g shelled nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, coarsely chopped
3tbsp pumpkin seeds
Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Mix the cherries with the sugar in an ovenproof dish, cover and cook in the oven for 15 minutes. Rub the butter and flour together to a breadcrumb-like consistency. Add the sugar and other topping ingredients; mix well. Remove fruit mixture from the oven and scatter the topping over the fruit. Bake for 30-40 minutes until nicely coloured. Serve with thick cream or custard.
Focaccia with cherries, honey and almonds
Whether savoury or sweet, focaccia is a simple bread to knock up at home. This version is delicious simply served with cheese – just leave it on the table for your guests to help themselves to. This recipe makes one large rectangular piece or about three rounds.
500g strong white bread flour
1x7g sachet dried yeast
350ml lukewarm water
200g clear honey
40-50 cherries, stoned
60g flaked almonds
In a food mixer with the dough hook, mix the flour, yeast, salt, water and a third of the honey on the lowest speed for 3-4 minutes to form an elastic dough.
Remove the dough hook from the machine, cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm place for a few hours until it has doubled in size. Remove from the bowl and transfer to a lightly-floured work surface and knock it back to its original size.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6.
Lightly oil a baking tray or, better still, use a non-stick one. Roll and stretch the dough into a rectangle, oval or circle to about 1-2cm thick. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise again for about an hour or so. Prod some holes randomly all over the dough with your fingers and insert the cherries. Scatter with the almonds and drizzle with half the remaining honey. Bake for 15 minutes, then drizzle over the rest of the honey and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until golden. Serve warm.
Duck salad with steeped cherries
Serves 4 as a starter
Rather like pork, duck is one of those meats which marries perfectly with a few classic sweet flavours. Apples, blackcurrants, oranges and even wild elderberries all complement those slightly fatty, rich and crisp qualities that a duck has.
2 large duck breasts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A couple of handfuls of tasty, small salad leaves
30 or so cherries, stoned and halved
3-4tbsp cider vinegar
1tsp Tewkesbury or Dijon mustard
2tbsp rapeseed oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
The day before, put the cherries in a non-reactive bowl with the cider vinegar, cover with clingfilm and leave overnight or until required.
To serve, heat a heavy frying pan, season the duck breasts and cook for 3-4 minutes, first on the skin, then turn them over and continue cooking for another 3-4 minutes, depending on size and keeping them nice and pink.
Remove from the pan and leave to rest on a plate.
To make the dressing, drain off the vinegar from the cherries, place half of it in a mixing bowl and whisk in the mustard and oils and season. Slice the duck breasts as thinly as you can on the angle. Toss the leaves in the dressing with the cherries and slices of duck and arrange on serving plates.
White chocolate polenta with cherries and Amaretto
Polenta is a great vehicle for carrying and absorbing good flavours; usually it's a savoury ragu or maybe some fried ceps or even shavings of white truffles. For this dessert, I'm using polenta to soak up all the sweet flavours of a rich cherry sauce.
400g cherries, stoned
60ml cherry brandy or cherry liqueur (optional)
For the polenta
75g quick cooking polenta
60-80g caster sugar
100ml double cream
80g white chocolate, grated or white chocolate buttons
Put 100g of the cherries into a saucepan with the sugar and about 300ml water; bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir enough into the cherries to thicken, then continue simmering for another 10 minutes. Blend in a liquidiser until smooth then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into another saucepan. Put the stoned cherries in the sauce, bring to the boil and remove from the heat, then add the cherry liqueur, if using.
To make the polenta, bring the milk to the boil in a thick-bottomed pan, then whisk in the polenta and simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan – a simmer plate is perfect for this. Add the sugar and cook for a couple more minutes, then stir in the cream and white chocolate until it has melted; remove from the heat, cover in clingfilm and keep warm. To serve, spoon the polenta on to warmed serving plates and spoon the cherries on top.