Cherries join cocoa as beneficial food craving

In more than 10 years of reviewing restaurants and seven years of editing food pages for the newspaper, I’ve developed a reputation for somewhat unconventional tastes.

Rich meats like lamb and goat, bitter vegetables and herbs and most things funky and fermented just hit the right note on my palate. My enthusiasm for commonplace sweet and salty flavors is more reluctant.

The past eight months, I suspect, have only reinforced my reputation as a lover of oddball foods. Pregnant women can’t avoid being quizzed about food cravings, though they may point to the usual suspects — ice cream, cheeseburgers, potato chips, chocolate — guilty pleasures that incite cravings in most of us.

My craving? Dried sour cherries. I’ve eaten a handful pretty much every day since midsummer when little else tempted my appetite. I keep other dried fruits — apricots, cranberries, raisins, prunes — on hand, too, but none do the trick like tart cherries.

Of course, I get blank looks when I cite this food as my mainstay. But recently, I ran across an article that seemed to reinforce the actual physiological — not psychological — purpose for this craving.

Highlighted in the new book “The Best Things You Can Eat,” by David Grotto, tart cherries apparently are one of the best foods for improving sleep, fighting pain and inflammation and promoting muscle recovery, among other health benefits. More information is available at www.choosecherries.com.

Tart cherries are available year-round, frozen and as juice (which I also buy), in addition to dried. Here are some tips for incorporating them into your diet:

Grab a handful each of dried cherries and shelled walnuts about an hour before bedtime for a melatonin boost that helps regulate the sleep cycle.

Toss grilled salmon, dried cherries and a dash of turmeric with salad greens for heightened flavor and pain-fighting nutrients.

Blend low-fat chocolate milk, kefir or plain yogurt and frozen cherries for a quick boost before or after workouts.

Stir together a trail mix of dried cherries, ginger, cinnamon, almonds and whole-grain cereal for a heart-healthy snack.

Swap typical berries for dried, tart cherries on top of cereal, oatmeal, yogurt or pancakes.

Many of us who love cherries particularly love them with chocolate. I’m no exception, although I don’t consider myself a chocoholic.

This weekend, though, I’ll be serving as one of the judges at the Oregon Chocolate Festival in Ashland, so I’m psyching myself up for a marathon tasting session. My outlook is bolstered by the knowledge that dark chocolate, as most people know, is packed with antioxidants that promote heart health and may prevent many cardiovascular-related conditions. A recent study found that those consuming the highest levels of chocolate had a 37-percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29-percent reduction in stroke compared with those with lower chocolate intakes. Additionally:

Chocolate may help with math. Flavonols, compounds in chocolate with antioxidant-like properties, are thought to improve circulation, including blood flow to the brain.

Chocolate fills you up. Researchers gave 16 participants 100 grams of either dark or milk chocolate and two hours later offered them pizza. Those who consumed the dark chocolate ate 15 percent fewer calories than those who had milk chocolate, and they were less interested in fatty, salty and sugary foods.

Chocolate makes you feel better because of phenethylamine, which triggers the release of endorphins. The reaction is similar to the one that people experience when they fall in love. Cocoa’s blend of sugar and caffeine produces a longer-lasting high, according to researchers.

Chocolate helps you relax. Studies have shown that chocolate contains the compound anandamide that activates the same brain receptors as marijuana.

Chocolate may help you live longer. One study’s participants who ate candy one to three times a month had the lowest mortality rates of the group, with research, suggesting this may be due to the antioxidants in chocolate. Another study also found that heart-attack survivors who ate chocolate were less likely to die than those who went without.

So why not infuse an entire meal with chocolate? That’s what Ashland Springs Hotel is doing Friday for the Chocolate Festival. I’ll be at the Chocolate Makers Dinner and will post Facebook and Twitter updates throughout the event and for the rest of the weekend.

And if I can’t get a chocolate-cherry fix, I’m putting this dessert recipe from the Detroit Free Press on my to-do list:

MCT photo

Chocolate-Cherry Cupcakes With Vanilla-Bean Frosting

1 cup dried cherries

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60-percent cacao), broken

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3⁄4 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

4 large eggs

1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 vanilla beans, split

1 (8-ounce) package reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened

1⁄2 cup plus 1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 muffin pans with 16 paper liners.

In a small saucepan, combine the cherries and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Transfer mixture (cherries and water) to a food processor. Add the cocoa, chocolate and butter and pulse until combined. Cool for 1 minute. Add the brown sugar, vanilla extract and a pinch of salt; puree until almost smooth.

Pulse in the eggs until well-combined. in a bowl, whisk together the flour and baking soda and add to food processor. Pulse until just combined.

Divide batter evenly among prepared pans. Bake in upper and lower thirds of preheated oven until tops are slightly domed and firm to touch, for 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool cupcakes in pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on a rack.

Scrape the vanilla-bean seeds into a bowl. Add the cream cheese and powdered sugar and beat well. Pipe or spread frosting onto cupcakes. Makes 16.

From Prevention magazine’s January 2012 issue.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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