Although oranges were once a prized Christmas gift and nowadays there are plenty of clementines for consumers’ holiday celebrations, sour cherries seem to be the seasonal fruit of choice at many restaurants.
Much as blackberries this past summer filled the need for something that was kind of different but still familiar, sour cherries aren’t quite run-of-the-mill, but neither are they intimidating. Too tart to be eaten on their own, they’re almost always sweetened for desserts or used as a bright counterpoint in rich savory preparations. They’re often dried to be used after their summertime harvest.
“It’s good to have cherries year-round,” says Heather Bertinetti, pastry chef of Marea  in New York City. “I have been known to take fresh sour cherries and dry them myself,” she says though they also store well in high-ratio simple syrup of two parts sugar to one part water.
“They stay tart,” she says. “Most of the restaurants that I grew up working in used them in the winter.”
Bertinetti currently uses them in her take on a traditional Italian dessert. She folds torrone—a traditional Italian nougat that she grinds and thins with hazelnut oil—into a fior di latte gelato and scoops it onto a slice of black-cocoa cake served with sour-cherry compote and sour-cherry sauce.
“The acid from the cherry goes well with the acid from the cake,” she says, noting that black cocoa has a higher acid level than regular chocolate. She says those two balance out the sweetness from the torrone. She charges $12 for it.
“It’s one of our best sellers,” she says.
Another popular dish is her gianduja dessert.
“I love the sweet and tart flavor that you get from the sour cherry,” says Vicky Moore, chef of The Lazy Goat in Greenville, S.C.
She rehydrates dried cherries by steeping them in red wine with allspice berries and a cinnamon stick over very low heat.
“It doesn’t come up to a simmer even,” she says. After she strains them, half of them go to the pizza station and the rest are made into a salad with slow-roasted beets, local goat cheese, arugula and candied pecans. She charges $10 for it.
The wine poaching liquid is mixed with salt, pepper and olive oil to make a dressing.
For the pizza, Moore puts duck confit, olive oil, caramelized onions and a shaved semisoft goat cheese called murcina al vino, which she calls “drunken goat cheese,” on a par-baked crust. When the cheese melts Moore cracks a duck egg in the center of the pizza and puts it back in the oven until the egg is just cooked, with a runny yolk.
Then she pulls it out and tops it with an arugula and sour-cherry salad and the dressing. It’s $12.
In Los Angeles, at Simon LA, executive sous chef Andrew Vaughan uses dried sour cherries to balance the buttery quality of barramundi, an Australian bass. Vaughan puts the cherries in a black-rice risotto.
Vaughan caramelizes “a lot of shallots”—a couple of tablespoons for two ounces of rice—and adds thyme, rosemary and sage to the risotto. He adds the cherries at the last minute, but they plump up in the liquid.
“They practically melt in your mouth,” he says. Accompanying the $34 dish is butternut squash purée and lightly sautéed Brussels sprouts.
At Avalon  in West Chester, Pa., chef-owner John Brandt-Lee makes a sour-cherry polenta to go with his $19 slow-roasted pork shoulder. He cooks bone-in shoulder in a slow cooker for five to six hours, pulls it and refrigerates it, saving the braising liquid.
At service he sears the pork, deglazes with the liquid, and tosses in sour cherries and herbs. The polenta is made in advance, mascarpone is folded in and it is set in a tray.Other uses of sour cherries this season
Aureole , New York: sheep milk ricotta cheesecake with sour cherries and honey oat streuselBar Henry, New York: chocolate mousse with sour cherriesCávo , Astoria, N.Y.: Manouri cheesecake with graham cracker crust and sour cherriesCourtright’s , Willow Springs, Ill.: dried sour cherries to garnish salads; brandied sour cherries in venison and country terrines; salmon with salsify, bacon, purple sweet-potato purée and sour-cherry sauce; quail stuffed with pork, foie gras and sour cherriesDovetail , New York: shrimp sausage with sour cherries, yogurt and cardamom saltThe Gage , Chicago: pistachio and chocolate pavé with sour-cherry geléePizzeria Stella , Philadelphia: grilled radicchio salad with Gorgonzola, sour cherries, onion and balsamic vinegarPrairie Grass Cafe , Northbrook, Ill.: house-made cherry syrup for seasonal soda; sour-cherry pieTrattoria Cinque , New York: almond semi-freddo with sour-cherry sauceZazu restaurant , Santa Rosa, Calif.: sour cherry and grains of paradise biscotti
He slices it into squares and layers it twice with dried cherries that he rehydrates by simmering them in port. He reduces the port and pours that on top of the pork.
“I don’t like the canned cherries because they have a tendency to be way too sweet,” he says.
Ziggy Gruber, chef-owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, uses jarred sour cherries from Hungary for a traditional chilled fruit soup from that country.
“It’s a traditional soup like they used to do in the Catskills or in kosher dairy restaurants in New York,” Gruber says. It’s normally served at the beginning of the meal, “but because it’s a sweet type of soup, some people have even served it like a dessert. It’s kind of like blintzes that way,” he says, noting that the cheese crêpes filled with creamy mild cheese mixture and usually topped with a fruit sauce, sometimes are eaten as a light meal and sometimes as a dessert.
He adds the juice from the cherries, along with some cherry syrup, to water and boils it with cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, salt, orange juice and lemon juice. He thickens that with a cornstarch slurry, finishes it with a sour cream thinned with a little half-and-half, adds the cherries and chills it.