Black Currants: Small sweet/tart delights

This week the Ohio River Valley seemed to come alive. The river line, the countryside, the hollars, all seemed bright vibrant green. Along with the zesty beauty, the gardens have begun producing. I have been under the belief system for quite sometime now that we have a cuisine and a crop base native and unique to our region of the United States. Beautiful fruit and veggies, not necessarily the traditional ones we find at the grocery, can be found in different shapes and colors in our local farmers market, our backyard, or even a friendly neighbors. Last week I made a delicious stop in Ewing for exactly that sort of fresh food experience.

I received a batch of delicious black currant berries from area farm, Turtleback Ridge. I was so tickled with this delicious treat. A berry I have only about five years of experience with, but a berry that has grown around me my whole life. Funny how that works. The black current is a berry that according to a Business Weekly article, has been eaten by less than one percent of the American population.

While I prepared for this weeks article I looked everywhere for recipes using the small sweet/tart delight. Despite my ridiculous collection of cookbooks, none offered anything to work with. How could something so natural to the area be so rare in American culture?

I knew I had to have eaten them before five years ago and the more I thought about it, I realized my mother had friends who would gift us jams, wine, and syrups made with the lovely fruit. Usually friends with lush gardens or from the countryside who found them growing wild. Oddly, in Europe, the delicious berry is popular in treats everywhere.

The black currant was not always such a stranger to the American table. In the late 1800’s, US farmers grew black and white currants as well as gooseberries. Together, known as the Ribes species, they were among the leading products produced in America.

However, one of the greatest one of the largest industries in 1900’s North America was the timber industry. Disaster occurred when white pines began dying due to a black fungus. Pathologists realized the black currants were spreading the fungus, introduced from European pines, and soon after the Federal Government outlawed the commercial growth of black currants and event went so far as to eradicate the entire Ribes species of plants.

Large crews used chemical sprays to kill field after field of the species along with most memories of the deep purple fruit. Decade after decade, generation after generation grew unaccustomed to something that once grew around us as naturally as black berries.

More than a century later, the trees are no longer being attacked by fungus, and the woody shrubs growing the beautiful currants have began to grow back.

It’s an exciting time to cook with this yummy berry. A treat that will surprise your taste buds and open the eyes at the dinner table to additional food options. If you truly want to take your locally harvested food to the next level, look no further than the fields and gardens around us. Once you know what to look for you will begin to see black currants everywhere.

Today I have included a few recipes featuring the black currant. I also encourage you to add them to iced tea, cook down with sugar and top over ice cream, add into muffins or scones. Treat the sweet tart currant like you would most berries and the results won’t disappoint.

Good luck and enjoy!

Black Currant Jam

(Delicious jelly, currants thicken and jell wonderfully. Leave a jam a bit on the runny side when cooking, as it will thicken more than most jams)

Makes 2 full jars

black currants, stemmed, 2 cups

water, ¾ cup

lemon juice, 1 teaspoon. Sugar, 1 ¼ cup

In a large pot, bring the black currants and the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes, until the black currants are softened.

Add the sugar and the lemon juice and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the jam reaches the jelling point (220ºF).

Or if you want to do the freezer test, put a small plate in the freezer. When the jam looks thickened, turn off the heat and put a teaspoon of the jam on the plate and stick it back in the freezer for about 5 minutes. When you take it out, it’s done if you nudge your finger into it and it holds its shape. If not, continue cooking it, and retesting the jam, until it’s the right consistency.

When ready, scrape into clean jars, cover, and turn the jars over until cool.

Store jam in the refrigerator and eat it within a few months.

Black Bread

(Scottish traditionally eaten at New Years. Keep for several weeks so that it may mature.)

16 slices

Pastry butter, 1 cup, plus additional for greasing

flour, all-purpose, 4 cups

baking powder, 1 teaspoon

Filling

raisins, 8 cups

currants, 8 cups

flour, all-purpose, 3 cups

brown sugar, soft, 1 1//4 cup

allspice, 2 teaspoons

ginger, to taste

cinnamon, to taste

black pepper, to taste

baking powder, ½ teaspoon

cream of tarter, 1 teaspoon

brandy, 1 tablespoon

egg, beaten, 1

milk, 2/3 cup

Pastry

Rub butter into flour with baking powder. Add enough cold water to mix a stiff dough. Leave the rest and roll into a thin sheet. Grease two, eight inch loaf tins and line with dough, reserving some to cover the top.

Preheat oven to 225 degrees

Filling

Mix all dry ingredients, then add and mix in with brandy, egg, and enough milk to moisten mixture. Put into loaf tins and cover with remaining pastry. Use remaining milk or egg wash (1 egg beaten with a splash of milk) to seal off the top crust. Prick all over with a fork and brush with an egg.

Bake for 3 hours. When cool, store in airtight tin.

Black Currant Mouse

4 servings fresh blackcurrants, 9 ounces

caster sugar, superfine granulated, 2 ounces

lemon juice, 2 tsp

gelatin, 2 tsp

heavy cream, 4 ounces

egg whites, 2 whipped cream for decorating

Reserve a few whole blackcurrants for decoration. Press the rest through a sieve into a measuring jug, then make up the puree to 150 ml (1/4 pint) with water. Combine currant puree, sugar and lemon juice in a mixing bowl.

Place 2 tbsp water in a small heatproof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on to the liquid. Stand the bowl over a saucepan of hot water and stir the gelatin until it has dissolved completely. Cool slightly.

Fold a little of the blackcurrant puree into the cooled gelatin, then whisk this mixture into the bowl of blackcurrant puree. Leave in a cool place until the mixture starts to set.

In a deep bowl, whip the cream until it just holds its shape, then fold into the blackcurrant mixture with a metal spoon. Whisk the egg whites in a clean, grease-free bowl, and fold in.

Make sure that the mixture is thoroughly and evenly blended but do not over mix. Gently into a glass dish, a whetted, 17 fl ounces, mold or individual glasses. Refrigerate for 1 – 2 hours until set, then turn out if necessary and decorate with whipped cream and the reserved blackcurrants.

The photos and recipes used in today’s article are from the kitchen of Chef Babz (babzbites@gmail.com) with a little help from Christopher Trotter, The Scottish Kitchen, 2004.

Black currants, courtesy of Turtleback Ridge Wares in Ewing, are not only grown locally but have a delicious flavor that can cater to the savory or sweet taste bud.



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