Kitchen Shrink: Life's just a bowl of Bings, maraschinos, Rainiers ...

Sadly, fresh cherry season is coming to an end, so here's a primer to help you enjoy and appreciate these ruby (and sometimes golden) beauties year 'round until next summer's crop comes rolling in.

Cherries are members of the Rosaceae family and distant cousins to the peach, apricot, plum and almond, with more than 1,000 types cultivated in 20 countries. Cherries fall into two subcategories - sweet and sour. Just a handful are familiar to cherry lovers: the sweet Bing, Tulare, Rainier and the Royal Ann, which morphs into the maraschino, while the sour or tart ones include the Nanking and Evans.

The ancient Greeks started sweet cherry cultivation, while the Romans prized both its timber and succulent fruit. The cherry was named after the town Cerasus, from which it was exported to Europe. Food folklore claims the stony seed was probably first transported by birds to the continent. English colonists brought sweet cherries to America around 1629, while Spanish missionaries introduced them to California, where it became an established cherry cultivating region in the 1800s.

Cherries are as healthful as they are scrumptious. Lauded as a "homegrown super fruit," they are packed with vitamins, minerals and other healing properties. Tart cherries have one of the highest levels of disease-fighting antioxidants and are even higher in vitamin C and beta-carotene than their sweet siblings. Cherries contain a flavonoid called quercetin, which has been linked to reducing the risk factors for heart disease, especially "belly" fat, inflammation and cholesterol. In addition, they are packed with vitamin B17, a phenolic acid that has been studied for its anticarginogenic properties. The anthocyanins in cherries have been shown to reduce arthritic joint and gout pain as they block inflammatory enzymes. They are also considered an excellent source of boron, which is associated with improved bone health. Finally, cherries contain melatonin, which has been found to stabilize the body's circadian sleep patterns and alleviate jet lag.

One to two daily servings will help ward off these assorted ailments, whether you incorporate fresh, frozen, dried or jarred cherries or drink the juice straight up. Toss some sweet frozen ones into smoothies or lemonade. Bake them in pies, cobblers or top off a cheesecake with them. Make an ice cream sundae with a flambeed, brandied jubilee topping. Do an apricot/cherry chicken bake. Use the dried version as a substitute for raisins in oatmeal, scones or muffins. Toss in tabouli, couscous or salads. Make preserves or jam. Or simply snack on some fresh, sweet ones out of a bowl or munch on some tart, dried ones out of a bag.

Now here's how to pick a winner. If you're buying from the grocery store, avoid cherries with dark stems, wrinkled skin, mushy flesh and white spots that could be mold. Make sure they are firm to the touch, and look for fresh stems and shiny, plump fruit without blemishes. If you're cherry picking at an orchard, don't wear white unless you want to look like a tie-dyed craft project. Bring your own containers and an insulated bag or cooler for the ride home.

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