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Compact, juicy, and colourful, cherries are nicely supplied with nutrients, notably pectin (a soluble fibre that helps control blood cholesterol levels), vitamin C, and beta-carotene, with some potassium. (Sour cherries, have considerably more vitamin C than sweet cherries do, though much of it is lost when the cherries are cooked.)

Cherries are also high in a number of phytochemicals, including: anthocyanins (pigments responsible for the red and blue colours of fruits and vegetables), which may have anticancer properties based on their antioxidant activities that defend cells against harmful carcinogens); and quercetin, a so-called flavonoid, which is an antioxidant and may have both anticancer potential as well as anti-inflammatory and antihistaminic properties. It is this anti-inflammatory activity that has made cherries (specifically cherry juice) of interest to people who suffer from gout.

There's even a possible dental health bonus in that studies have shown that a substance (not yet identified) in cherry juice may help prevent tooth decay.

Buy cherries that have been kept cool and moist, as flavour and texture both suffer at warm temperatures. Take just a few cherries at a time in your hand and select only the best. If circumstances allow, taste one. Good cherries should be glossy, plump, hard, and dark coloured for their variety. Reject undersized fruits or those that are soft or flabby.

Check carefully for bruises or cuts on the dark surface, and avoid cherries that are sticky through juice leakage. If you find many damaged fruits, consider shopping elsewhere, as a number of spoiled cherries in a tray will start the others on the road to decay.

The stems should be fresh and green; avoid cherries without stems, as the resulting skin break presents an opportunity for decay to begin. Darkened stems are a sign of either old age or poor storage conditions.

Loosely pack (to minimise bruising) unwashed cherries in plastic bags, or pour them into a shallow pan in a single layer and cover with plastic wrap. Store them in the refrigerator. Fresh cherries in good condition should keep for up to a week, but check them occasionally and remove any that have begun to go bad.

You can extend the cherry season by freezing them. Rinse and drain the cherries thoroughly, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the cherries to a heavy plastic bag. They'll keep for up to one year. When freezing fruits, vegetables or any other food, it's a good idea to label and date the bag, that way you'll know what you have on hand and how long you've had it.

When serving fresh cherries, simply rinse them under cold water and drain; they're most attractive with the stems intact. To pit cherries for cooking, halve them with a paring knife and pry out the pit with the tip of the knife, or use an inexpensive cherry pitter (found in any kitchenware shop), which works like a hole punch. A partially unbent paper clip (or an old-fashioned V-shaped hairpin, if you can find one) will also do the job.

If cooked for just a few minutes, sweet cherries retain their firm texture, and their flavour develops a depth and richness. Try poaching them, this gentle cooking method preserves their texture. Stem and pit the cherries, then drop them into a small amount of simmering water or a combination of water and wine and cook until the fruit is slightly softened and heated through, about 1 to 3 minutes. If you like, you can season the simmering water with a cinnamon stick, a little ground allspice, or even a hint of pepper.

Cherries can also be sautéed in a small amount of butter and sugar and served in crepes, atop pancakes or waffles or over frozen yogurt and ice cream.

Both sweet and sour cherries make excellent jam and preserves, but will require pectin to thicken. Follow your favorite recipe.

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