The Spanish cherry season starts at the beginning of May and piles of them have made their way into the markets in Valencia. I had never thought of cherries as being common in Spanish cuisine, but they are actually a prized crop here. Cherry trees are native to southeast Europe and western Asia, probably originating somewhere in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Cherries were introduced to Spain by the Romans. They are cultivated all over Spain, but the regions of Aragon, Extramadura, and Catalonia produce the most. Overall, more than a hundred different varieties of both sweet and sour cherries are grown in Spain that mature at different rates to keep the harvest going through the three month season. It’s no wonder I can never find the same cherries twice!
Like with other agricultural products in Spain, there is a lot of pride in the quality of their cherries, which are protected by official Denominations of Origin (D.O.). Three hours west of Madrid bordering Portugal, in the Valle de Jerte in Extramadura, the Picota cherry has been cultivated there since the 17th century. It is protected by the Cereza del Jerte D.O.
Closer to home for us in the Valencian Community, cherries are grown in the northern mountainous regions of the Alicante province under the D.O. of Cerezas de la Montaña de Alicante (Cherries of the Mountain of Alicante).
While I think the best way to enjoy cherries is straight up, hand to mouth, they are also great to cook with. One of our favorite ways to use them is in a cherry gazpacho, an interesting variation of the classic cold summer soup.
For this recipe, we used extra sweet cherries from Aragon. These were big juicy fruits with almost black skins, deep red flesh, and a rich sweetness. A flavor profile that we thought would be complemented by the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. Chipotle peppers are not Spanish, but you can find them here. We tried both ground chipotle and canned and found that we prefer the canned chipotles in Adobo sauce. We use one chipotle pepper, with seeds removed.
The soup starts like a traditional gazpacho. We use roma or plum tomatoes (also called pera in Spain). The tomatoes are blanched in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, then dunked in cold water so that the skins slide right off. They are then cut in half to remove the seeds and cores, which we drain in a colander over a bowl to catch every drop of juice. The collected juice is used to moisten torn chunks of stale bread to thicken the soup, just like a traditional gazpacho.
We use a 1/2 kg of cherries, or about 1 pound. After pitting the cherries we puree them in a blender until smooth. We then push the cherry juice through a fine mesh sieve to remove the skins. (This is optional. One of us has an aversion to pulp, so we take extra measures to remove it in our soups.)
Sweet yellow bell peppers work better with the sweetness of the cherries than green peppers. We peel them with a vegetable peeler and remove the seeds. The tomatoes are then pureed in the blender along with the yellow pepper, a roughly chopped onion and clove of garlic.
The cherry juice is then added and blended well. We save the chipotle pepper for last and add it a little at a time, tasting along the way to adjust the amount of spice. Note that we use an 8-cup blender which is pretty big. With a smaller blender, you may need to blend ingredients in batches and combine together at the end.
Once we get the flavorings adjusted to our liking, we drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil through the opening in the blender lid while blending to give the soup a silky texture. The moistened bread is added a bit at a time and blended throughly until we reach our desired consistency. This soup is best sipped cold, so we chill it for several hours before serving.
Cherry Chipotle Gazpacho
1/2 kg (about 1 lb) cherries
2 kg (about 4 lbs) roma or plum tomatoes
2 yellow peppers
1 small sweet onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
One chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeds removed OR 1/2 tsp ground chipotle pepper
a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 cup torn bread
- Remove pits from the cherries, puree in a blender and then run through a fine mesh sieve to remove skins (optional for a smoother gazpacho).
- Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, dunk in cold water and remove skins. Cut tomatoes in half to remove seeds and cores, straining any leftover juices into a bowl.
- Toss torn bread in reserved tomato juice and let sit to absorb juices.
- Peel the yellow peppers with a vegetable peeler, remove core and seeds.
- Puree tomatoes in blender.
- Add yellow pepper, onion and garlic and blend until smooth.
- Add the cherry juice to the mixture.
- Roughly chop the chipotle pepper and add to blender in small batches, blending and tasting until the desired spice level is reached.
- With the blender running, add olive oil in a slow stream.
- Add moistened bread to blender in small batches, blending in until desired consistency