Friday, July 15, 2011

Black Currants

If you grew up in the United States, chances are good that black currants weren’t on your summer table. Probably, unless you traveled abroad or had a British granny smuggling them in, they weren’t on your radar at all. That’s because even now, the tart, musky little berries are still illegal to grow in some states, with other states only recently having lifted the ban (New York did so in 2003). Though popular in Europe and brought over to America by colonists as early as the seventeenth century, black currants were found to harbor white pine blister rust, and in the 1920s cultivation was banned nationwide. In the mean time, they were all but forgotten in this country. I don’t think I heard of them until traveling to France as a child, when we strolled through the farmers' markets and witnessed such marvels as jewel-like groseilles and live guinea pigs.

For my husband Ben, who landed here from England as a boy, black currants top the list of his all-time favorite fruits. That's not because they are succulent or delicious to eat out of hand (they’re not) but because of his beloved Granny, who grew them and simmered them into a compote for dessert, served with fresh double cream. He still goes all misty-eyed when he speaks of the willowy Granny Mildé, with her lush garden and simple yet impeccable cooking; her army of pugs and her passion for swimming icy waters, owing to a childhood spent splashing in the salmon-rich rivers of Northumberland (seriously. I think she once dove into the Long Island Sound in December). The first time I heard about her, I knew I had a lot to live up to.

It was Ben who introduced me to the powerful flavor of black currants, though at the time we had no access to the fresh fruit or any inkling that it existed in the U.S. at all. When we were first together, our refrigerator was never without a bottle of Ribena (blackcurrant syrup), usually brought back from England by a relative or scored for a pretty penny at Myer’s of Keswick. After work, he would come home and stir a spoonful of it into a glass of cold water, for a tangy purple drink. I learned
quickly that if anyone in his family showed up with a pack of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, there would be a fight to the death over the black ones. In those early days someone–probably Ben's sister, Chloe–took pity on me and gave me one of the blacks so I wouldn't have to duke it out with the rest of them.

I soon developed a fondness for the musky perfume–which reminded me in a weird way of elderflower. I fell for them without ever having sampled the real thing, and then one summer, black currants turned up practically in our back yard. We were over at Mrs. L’s farm, near our house in Connecticut, picking blueberries. In case you didn’t read this post from last July, picking blueberries at Mrs. L.’s
honor-system blueberry patch is one of my most favorite things on earth. Nine times out of ten she doesn't appear at all, but one day she did, and she was in a chatty mood. I don't remember how the subject came up, but she casually mentioned her black currant bushes. Ben perked up, not quite believing his ears.

“People don't really like them in this country.” She said, waving a hand dismissively. “They don’t understand them. You're welcome to pick some.”

So we set about picking, which is no easy task, and whenever we see her now we delicately wangle an invitation to take some of the fruit off her hands. They also show up some weekends in season–along with the blueberries–at the excellent Marble Valley Farm (Route 7 just south of Kent, CT).

In New York City, Wilklow Orchards sells black currants (along with red currants and gooseberries), as does Red Jacket Orchards. Both farms have stands at NYC greenmarkets, including Borough Hall and Union Square. Wilklow had some fine looking black currants yesterday, but I was told they won't be around for much longer.
How to best eat these dusky little fruits? Cooked! You really do not want to eat them raw, as they are intensely tannic with a strong, almost resinous flavor. My friend Kamila tells me that when she was a child in the Czech Republic, her family grew them in their yard, where she and her sister would hold contests to see who could endure eating the most raw black currants. They also enjoyed them cooked in desserts and in jams, and would use the tines of a fork to “comb” the berries off the stems, which can be an arduous task.

Every summer, I have experimented with and enjoyed black currants in various ways. I have made a concentrated syrup to mix with water (still or sparkling), kind of like Ribena. You make the syrup by stewing the black currants with sugar and a bit of water, then mashing and straining them. Mrs. L. tells us she likes to serve black currant syrup over slices of lemon cake.

I have also made an alcoholic version, using vodka, to fashion a sort of homemade Crème de Cassis, for kirs and kir royals (mix a small amount with crisp white wine or champagne, respectively). 

The venerable Elizabeth David recommended adding black currants to summer pudding, that English dessert fashioned from berries and white bread and served with cream. My mother-in-law, Pauline, makes a delicious summer pudding; she included it in a beautiful handwritten recipe book she gave to all the ladies in the family for Christmas one year. Some day I'll give this recipe a whirl with black currants instead of blackberries.

I have found the most simple, versatile, and delicious use of black currants is to make a puree, which can then be enjoyed over ice cream or folded into sweetened cream as a fool. I have also spun this puree into an ice cream base for a rich, violet-hued cassis ice cream, which my friend Michele also tells me her Swiss father makes every summer. 

Currants both black and red also make delicious jam, as well as lending themselves to savory recipes, such as sauces for meat and game. As for Granny Mildé, the compote she served contained all the seeds and skins, at least the way Ben remembers it–and he loved it that way. Little did he know, he was also getting incredible doses of vitamins and other nutrients as blackcurrants, already loaded with Vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants, have high concentrations of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in their seeds. In fact, black currant extracts are touted as medicinal, and black currant syrup was distributed to children in Britain during World War II, when citrus fruits were scarce. If you don't mind a bit of extra roughage, you can follow the recipe below without straining it.
Black Currant Puree
Adapted from Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking

  • 1 pound black currants, rinsed (stems are O.K. if you plan on straining)
  • 3/4 pounds natural sugar, plus more if needed
  • fresh lemon juice
Instructions: Put black currants and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium flame until they begin to bubble. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring and mashing occasionally with a spoon. Once berries have broken down, pass them through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl, pressing to extract all the liquid. Use a spatula to scrape the outside of the strainer, as the fruit contains a lot of pectin and will begin to thicken. Discard solids. Rinse pan and return the strained puree to the heat, stirring in a squeeze of lemon. Taste and add a little more sugar if you'd like it sweeter, and serve hot or cold (puree thickens when chilled).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Whole Hog

Truth be told, it was only a half, but still: a whopping 150 pounds of pig, and we broke it down in my friends Dan and Fran’s entry hall last Saturday, fueled by Negra Modelos and old tango. This butchering session was enlightening, entertaining, and at times absurd (and if this sort of pursuit is likely to offend you, you might want to click away before you get to the pictures below).

Why, you might wonder, would anyone want to take part in such an activity, anyway? Well, why not? For the curious 11 food enthusiasts assembled, it was a rare chance to see where, exactly, the bacon and chops on our plates come from–and to learn a use for every last morsel, even the unsung cuts. You can call it an extension of
the whole DIY thing which, in parts of the country including Brooklyn, is huge right now (backyard chickens! Basement breweries! Flash artisanal markets!)–and though dissed by critics as hipster hogwash, this craft movement seems a healthy backlash against industrial food, in this case factory-farmed meat.

Dan, a whiz at the stove and the grill, hatched a plan to procure the half swine from the Meat Hook and host a workshop/party, where fellow epicureans would learn the art of butchering. Somehow, he convinced a real live butcheress, Sara Bigelow (also of the Meat Hook), to come to his house and show the group how it’s done, and after a string of e-mails peppered with pork puns, there we all were gathered around a dining table lined with cardboard and plastic tarp, a small electric fan whirring in the background. It was a surreal and, well, kind of a sketchy scene. Can you imagine walking into someone’s home and seeing a pig’s carcass all laid out, the head propped up and staring alongside it? Now imagine a ragged circle of onlookers, clad in a motley array of aprons, armed with saws and knives and bottles. There were some pretty earnest documentarians in the group, so if you care to see it in iphone time lapse, you can check that out here and catch the, er, darker version here.  

First, after the unveiling, we met the pig himself: this one came from upstate, from Sir William Berkshire farm (yes, a Berkshire pig), one of the suppliers for Fleisher's Meats. He was a happy hog, I like to think, rooting and rolling in loamy pastures and blissfully unaware of his fate. We learned to look for pigs without bruises or breaks, as either would indicate a stressful demise; this one seemed healthy and unblemished, aside from the obvious. 

Next, Sara showed the tools of her trade, which she graciously shared with us. Her fearsome knives were holstered in a mean-looking metal and chain scabbard, which could kick the ass of the wimpy nylon knife bag I was issued in cooking school.

She then began orientation with the pig, starting with the kidney and surrounding sheet of leaf lard–the purest kind, excellent for baking; I later took this home and rendered it.
Everyone who wanted to, which was pretty much everyone there, had a hand at the saw or knives, as we broke down the pig first into primal cuts–like the ham and the loin–then into the more recognizable retail cuts you usually buy, such as sirloin and chops and spare ribs. It was humbling and disorienting, seeing this huge slab of flesh and bone and not knowing what was up and what was down, or where to find the familiar pieces. In cooking school we were shown our way around cryovacked primal cuts, and in restaurants, the meat guy usually handles everything. With decent markets these days and butchers like the Meat Hook, who can cut you just about any portion you like, you really don't ever need to lay eyes on a side of beef or half a hog at all. 

Even though I watched it happen in real time, it still seemed like a bit of magic seeing a perfect chop, a hock, a sleek rack of ribs, emerge from the chaos.  

The weirdest part was trying to find a place for all of that meat. A home refrigerator just wasn't designed to hold a half an animal, so we did the best we could, stuffing piggy bits into every refrigerator shelf, cooler, and bucket we could find, covering some in ice, marinating others for immediate cooking. We would have been shut down immediately by the health department, which fortunately doesn't care too much about what goes on in people's private kitchens and entry halls. Later, when the rest of the guests had arrived for the after party, I saw a few flip up the tops of coolers in search of beer, only to recoil at the sight of ziplocked bags of bones, skin, sausage scraps.

Was all of this the teensiest bit disturbing? I've gotten used to handling meat and cutting through bone, but I'll admit, I could have done without seeing the pig's lifeless head staring me down (my friend Maureen, similarly uncomfortable, politely arranged an ear to cover the eye). I do appreciate learning how to use all the parts, such as cheeks for guanciale and stray scraps for sausage; a lot of the fat–and there's a lot of it–gets thrown in for sausage, too. I volunteered to conquer my horror of the head and take on the job of simmering it into a rich stock. Ultimately I won't be going Zuckerberg any time soon, but I think it's good to face the beast and be more aware of what you're eating.

I’m sorry to say that, in the end, the pig’s head didn’t fare so well. When it was delivered to my house in a cooler the following Monday and we opened the lid, it was way beyond ripe; I sent it packing down Columbia Street. I'm not quite sure where that head ended up, and I don't think I want to know.

But as for the rest of the beast, I would say it was put to excellent use, some of it enjoyed at the festivities that followed. During the workshop, one of the parts that elicited the most interest from the group was the shoulder. Pork shoulder is a beautiful thing, rippling with fat and dark, rich meat, and its awesomeness only multiplies when it’s cooked slowly, bathed in wood smoke. For many years over the fourth of July, we have dedicated a full day to the smoking of a Boston butt (which is actually not what it sounds like, but the shoulder). It's an all-day endeavor (stick around and plan to babysit!)
that rewards with incredibly tender and flavorful meat which we shred and heap on a flimsy bun with some coleslaw and tangy, Carolina-style barbecue sauce. That's our tradition for Independence Day weekend, and here's the recipe:

Smoked Pulled Pork
Serves approx. 10 people


  • 1/8 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons dry mustard
  • 2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander seed
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 6-8 lbs. pork shoulder–a cut such as Boston butt or picnic
  • Barbecue sauce (see below)
Other implements:

  • Smoker or charcoal grill with a cover
  • Grill tongs and spatula
  • Long-handled basting brush or similar tool
  • Hardwood charcoal
  • Optional: wood chips (preferably a fruit wood, like apple or cherry)

  1. The night before, mix together all dry ingredients. Rub mixture into the pork butt so it is coated evenly.
  2. Take the meat out of the refrigerator and build your fire–we start very early in the morning. If using a smoker, fill bottom with wood charcoal. If using a grill, keep the charcoal to one side of grill (meat will go on the other side, far enough so it won’t touch flames or cook too quickly). Light charcoal and allow it to fully catch fire then die down–we use a chimney starter. If using wood chips, soak them in water and keep them nearby. Once the flames have subsided and temperature registers around 200°, place meat on grate—it should be well clear of any flames. Cover smoker or grill, venting slightly, and allow meat to roast very slowly, keeping temperature stable. Check occasionally so flames do not burn out, adding charcoal as needed. If using wood chips, throw on a handful from time to time. Every hour or so, mop meat evenly with barbecue sauce (below).  
  3. After about 6 hours, carefully turn the pork butt. Cook for about 6 more hours, or until meat feels soft and shred-able. Cooking times may vary widely according to size, temperature, and the particularities of your smoker. Meat should be cooked through and tear away easily with tongs–optimal internal temperature is around 190°; meat will at some point plateau at around 160°, but if you can wait it out, your patience will be rewarded with amazingly tender meat that you don’t have to cut at all–just pull! Remove from fire and allow to rest at least fifteen minutes before shredding with a couple of forks, then serve on buns with sauce and, if you like, coleslaw.   
Carolina-Style Vinegar Sauce  

  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1-inch segment ginger, thinly sliced
  • 1 large clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 generous pinch red pepper flakes
  • Hot sauce, such as Frank’s Red Hot or Tabasco, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Starting the night before cooking begins, mix together all ingredients in a bottle or jar and shake well. Refrigerate and let infuse overnight.
Just before using, strain mixture. For stronger flavor, do not strain. Reserve half of sauce for "mopping" meat and put the other half in a squeeze bottle for serving.