I know for many people, September has been all about berry picking. Seemingly, conversations throughout Alaska – in grocery lines, at banks, and around lunch tables – inevitably include discussion on where to find the best local blueberry or salmonberry patch. It's another kind of berry harvest, however, to gather from your own garden. From my perspective, it is just as rewarding to harvest at home as it is to forage in the wild.
Nearly twenty years ago, when my husband Carl and I first bought the piece of land that became Winterlake Lodge, I planted ten black currant bare root plants along a small dirt trail that would eventually lead from the main lodge to the garden. There were certainly plenty of other high-priority tasks at hand moving into that property, but I was compelled to plant something that represented our future in a new place.
Lucky for me, those small black currant branches have long since turned into thick bushes that provide us with about 11 pounds of berries per bush – more than enough to make jams, jellies, and liquors for holiday giving. No worries. We'll find lots of uses for our now-frozen bags of black currants suspended in the freezer, waiting for winter meals we can linger over.
And, for the small supply of currants we hold back to be eaten fresh, these will be tossed into beet and black currant salads. We'll make sweet and sour red cabbage and toss in a handful of currants to add a bit of fruity tartness. And, if we are feeling indulgent, a morning juice drink of half black currant juice and half cherry juice might be a luxurious way to get the day going.
I have long used black currants in savory wine sauces. Using fruit in a savory sauce is a trick I learned from Chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago during the winter I worked in his restaurant. He taught me to make a red wine jus, or reduction, by cooking onions, carrot, and celery in bacon fat. We would then add in chopped Granny Smith apples, an orange peeled and chopped, and finish with some port and Burgundy wines. We'd cook this mixture slowly over low heat until about a cup of thick and intense sauce was left. When I got back to Alaska from my Chicago sojourn, I added in a handful of black currants to the recipe to perhaps make the jus just a little bit more local.
One go-to sauce in our kitchen that works well with game meat, venison and other fall and winter dishes is a gastrique. That is the official term used for a sweet and sour savory sauce that goes well with hearty Alaskan dishes. To make a black currant gastrique, I start with some kind of stock (chicken or beef), some kind of acid, usually apple cider vinegar, and some kind of fruit. All are simmered together, and the final product is either strained or left chunky in a rustic country style. Below is my recipe for Black Currant Gastrique. Of course, you can use other berries, different stock, and add a different kind of acid to create your own version of a savory, sweet and sour sauce perfect for a new fall dish.
Black Currant Gastrique
If you like the flavor of balsamic vinegar, substitute apple cider vinegar for balsamic. You can also add in other fruits, like fig and apple, to change the characteristics of this versatile sauce.
Place the chicken stock into a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Reduce the chicken stock by half. If you are using a good quality chicken stock, the reduction won't be too salty, but if you use certain commercial stocks, the reduction will be quite salty. You might find some reduced chicken stock packets in the store these days that are of good quality. If you are preparing any type of meat and have pan scrapings at hand – bits of cooked meat – to add into the sauce, add in up to 1/4 cup of scrapings as desired.
Add the shallot to the chicken stock and cook until the shallot is soft and golden. Continue to reduce the stock for a few more minutes. Add in the thyme leaves and the currants, coating the currants with the chicken stock. Add in the honey and the vinegar.
Simmer the sauce over low heat for about 7 to 10 minutes, or until the black currants have softened and extruded their juices. You can use the back of a wooden spoon to press against the berries to crush them lightly. Add in the butter at the end of the cooking process to "mount" the sauce. This gives the sauce a velvety shine and makes it smoother and creamier.
You can either strain the sauce through moistened cheesecloth to make it perfectly smooth, or you can serve it rustic style with the bits of black currant and shallot adding texture and interest to the sauce. I like it both ways.
Taste the sauce and add in salt and pepper as needed.
This makes about 2 cups of sauce.
Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.