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Groundwork: Currant Season

The Green Spring Gardens vegetable garden in summer bounty. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The vegetable season is in full swing, with months of harvest yet to go. The gardeners at the Green Spring Gardens demonstration vegetable garden in Northern Virginia are still putting in seeds and transplants of summer and winter squash, as well as musk melons, about a month later than normal. The wet, cold spring delayed the start of squash and melon season. But not to worry. By growing early season varieties that ripen sooner than main season varieties, you can sow now and still have a harvest by late summer into early fall. That's one of the blessings of living in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The first tomatoes, cucumbers and bush beans are beginning to yield, but Cindy Brown and the gardeners have given up on one of the two bean trellises, after the pole beans stubbornly refused to vine because of the cool, wet year. "I've never had such a poor performance for beans," she says. "How can you go wrong with beans?" She replaced them with heat-loving climbing lima beans. They will grow big and fat by the end of September.

Red currants at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

One fruit that enjoyed the cooler spring was the currant. Both red currants and black currants are part of the boundary plantings outside the garden fence. These fruits appear on attractive deciduous shrubs, and their acidity makes them fabulous ingredients for preserves, cordials and sauces. I like to eat them out of hand. The black currants can be mouth-puckeringly tart, but sweetness is overrated, right? They are loaded with vitamin C.

Don't plant just one currant bush; currant varieties are more fruitful when they are cross-pollinated by other currant bushes, and some currants absolutely require other bushes nearby to fruit. Besides, they make a handsome low hedge, growing to about five feet, and will still fruit in partial shade. Choose bushes by varietal name, and look for varieties that have been bred to resist white pine blister rust and powdery mildew. As with asparagus, you will have to wait two or three years for a decent harvest. But your patience will be rewarded.

One plant making a statement at Green Spring is the cardoon. This thistlelike perennial is closely related to the globe artichoke, but is grown for its decorative flower, with filaments of the most exciting electric blue. Its stems are edible.

Cardoons in bud. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

But I digress from our featured garden ingredient of the week. Over to Cindy and her plans for the red currant harvest....

Cindy Brown: Currants have an earthy, sweet taste that is often used in jellies in conjunction with another fruit. I remember my mother making apple currant jelly using the berries from our currant bushes. Adrian was excited to see that we grow currants in the kitchen garden, so he asked me to do a recipe: “Perhaps a sauce,” he said. The Brits have a traditional sauce made from currants called a Cumberland sauce, named after the Duke of Cumberland. Besides currants, the sauce contains port, dried mustard and ground ginger.

Berry Barbecue Sauce on grilled skirt steak. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Barbecue season inspired me to make a spicy, fruity sauce using the currants and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I used the sweet-spicy sauce on skirt steaks that I had dry-rubbed then grilled. During the final minutes of grilling, I mopped the sauce on the steaks. My husband didn’t complain about this recipe at all!

Berry Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups

Currants sold by the pint at area farmers markets and at Whole Foods Markets. Raspberries also could be used, or, in a pinch, currant jelly or black currant juice (if you use jelly. If using a substitute, you may wish to adjust the amount of molasses in the recipe.

MAKE AHEAD: The currant juice can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated or frozen. The barbecue sauce can be refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.

For the juice
10 ounces (2 cups) red currants (may substitute 1 cup black currant juice or currant jelly; see headnote)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

For the sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, minced (3/4 cup)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 canned chipotle pepper en adobo, minced (1 tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water, al ittle more if needed to thin the sauce
1 tablespoon cherry balsamic vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 or 2 tablespoons molasses

Rinse and stem the currants, then combine them in a medium saucepan with the sugar and water. Cook over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally; most of the currants should pop and release their juices.

Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof liquid measuring cup, pushing the currants to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids; there should be about 1 cup of juice.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the onion and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is soft. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes until the tomato paste is fragrant, then add the currant juice, chipotle pepper en adobo, salt, water, balsamic vinegar and molasses to taste, stirring to combine. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture becomes slightly syrupy and can coat the back of a spoon.

Strain if desired; the sauce can be used immediately, or cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Per tablespoon: 20 calories, 0 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, barbecue, currants  
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Adrian - glad to see you discussing currants, a great crop for us in Northern Virginia. In my experience, with our summers, they prefer some shade in the afternoon (I have grown currants fro about 10 years now). The season is short but they also freeze very well if one does not have time to process the.
I will admit I am not very original, and besides eating them in fruit salad, i make jelly - one of my favorites, and certainly the easiest jelly in the world:

Neat little shrubs, not bothered by pest nor birds.

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | July 6, 2009 9:45 PM | Report abuse

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