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Guilt Free Deserts

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Currants are small, spherical berries with thin, translucent skin that can be red, pink, white, or black. They have a soft, juicy pulp that contains several edible seeds. The flavor of currants varies from slightly to exceedingly tart. True currants are not to be confused with the zante currant, a variety of small, dried grape (raisin).

Currants are categorized by their color. Common red currants include the Red Lake, a mild-flavored, bright-red berry, and the Perfection, a medium to large, flavorful variety. The White Imperial, a small, round, white berry that grows on a spreading bush, has the lowest acid content of any currant. The most common pink currant is the Gloire des Sablons, an ancient French variety with pink flesh and colorless skin. The Boskoop is a well-flavored black currant, produced on a vigorous, upright bush. The Willoughby is a mild, black Canadian currant that is hardy to cold and sun and resists mildew.

Currants appear to have originated in northern Europe, northern Africa, Siberia, and in the Western Hemisphere, where they were eaten by American Indians well before their first contact with Europeans. American Indians historically have used currants for both food and medicinal purposes. The Coast Salish Indians of Vancouver Island boiled the fruit and dried it into rectangular cakes for use as a winter food. The Woodlands Cree Indians used currant jam as a condiment for fish, meat, and bread. Before 1550, the English called this fruit ribes, a name of ancient Indo-European origin. Subsequently, the berries came to be called currants, a word derived from the berry's resemblance to the dried Greek raisins that are made from small seedless grapes. English and European colonists in the Americas found currants growing wild in woods and fields and quickly developed a taste for them. Today, currants are commonly cultivated in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Europeans and Canadians seem to prefer black currants, and the less tart red and white varieties are more popular among Americans.

Currant plants are fast-growing, deciduous, perennial shrubs that can reach 5 feet in height and width. Their leaves resemble those of the maple tree in shape, but they are pale green on black currant bushes and dark blue-green on red currant plants. Some varieties are upright, and others spread. The self-fertilizing flowers that give rise to red currants are green, and those that produce black currants are pink. Plants are generally pollinated by insects. The berries, averaging about a fourth of an inch in diameter, hang in clusters from delicate, drooping stems called strigs. Currants prefer cold climates, heavy, moist, enriched soil, and full sun or light shade. Although they can be propagated by seed in the spring or by cuttings in the early fall, bushes grown from seed produce no fruit for 2 to 3 years. Pruning to remove wood that is more than 3 years old encourages the growth of new shoots.

Black currants are harvested selectively as they ripen and before they shrivel and fall from the bush. Red and white currants are pulled by the cluster to avoid damaging the delicate fruit. If the berries are going to be used for jams or jellies, they must be picked before they ripen fully because that is when the fruit pectin levels are highest. Berries grown for eating are allowed to ripen on the bush for several weeks after achieving full color. A mature currant bush can produce up to 4 quarts of fruit each year.

Because of their tartness, currants, particularly black currants, are rarely eaten as fresh fruit. Instead, they are made into jams and jellies or used in pies and sauces. Black currants are sometimes soaked in brandy or made into wine, sometimes mixed with honey and spirits. Black currants are the basis for the French liqueur crème de cassis. An infusion of the young leaves of the black currant shrub makes a drink similar to green tea.

Currants are high in vitamin C. Black currants are a good source of potassium.

Elderberry

Family Caprifoliaceae

Scientific name Sambucus canadensis,

Sambucus coerulea Common name elderberry

Elderberries are tiny berries that range from purple-red to blue and purple-black.

The elderberry tree is an American version ofthe common elder tree that is found on European, Asian, and northern African soils. The eastern elderberry Sambucus canadensis and the Western Sambucus coerulea are two common varieties.

The elder tree, which belongs to the honeysuckle family, has been around for centuries and may date back to the Stone Age. The Egyptians harvested its flowers and extracted their essence to use as medicine and to beautify the skin. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the elder tree was home to witches and that cutting it down would create trouble by disturbing those residing in the branches. In contrast, the Russians and the English believed that the elder tree warded off evil spirits. Hence, it was considered good luck to plant an elder tree near one's home. The Sicilians believed that sticks of elder wood could kill snakes and drive away thieves.

The plant is an evergreen that lives either as a large shrub, no more than 12

feet in height, or as a small tree, up to 20 feet in height, with hollow stems that support large compounded leaves. Ideal growth conditions include rich, sandy soil and direct sunlight or medium shade. The plant can be found growing wild in meadows or pastures or along roadsides. The plant produces sprays of small, white flowers, up to 6 inches in diameter, that give way to large clusters of berries, 6 to 9 inches wide.

Because of the tartness of the fresh fruit and a toxic alkaloid that is contained in the seeds (which is destroyed by heat), the berries are always cooked before eating. Alternatively, the berries can be added to pies or made into jam or wine.

Elderberries are high in vitamin C, fiber, and bioflavonoids, plant pigments with antioxidant properties.

Gooseberry

Family Saxifragaceae

Scientific name Ribes hirtellum (American gooseberry), Ribesgrossularia (European gooseberry) Common name gooseberry

Gooseberries are round fruits that vary from white to yellow, green, pink, red, purple, and nearly black. The color of the fruit is most intense in full sunlight.

The fruit consists of a translucent skin tightly surrounding a white pulp that encloses several small seeds. The berries range from a fourth to an inch in diameter.

Most varieties of gooseberry available in the United States are hybrids of the two main species, European and American. The fruits of the European variety are about 1 inch in diameter. The American variety is smaller and rounder and is pink to purplish-red when mature.

The European gooseberry is native to the Caucasus Mountains and northern Africa, and the American variety is native to the northeastern and north central regions of the United States. Gooseberries have been cultivated in Europe since the 15th century. The plants are very resistant to cold temperatures and grow well in cool, temperate climates.

Gooseberry plants are small, deciduous, woody shrubs, about 4 to 5 feet in height, with prominent thorns at the nodes. The fruits are produced along the stems singly or in small groups of two to four. The fruits generally drop from the shrub when they are overripe.

Because of their tartness, gooseberries are usually cooked with sugar and not eaten fresh. This tart but versatile berry can be used by itself or blended with other fruits to make pies, jams, or jellies. Gooseberry sauce prepared from underripe berries complements such dishes as roasted goose or duck. Gooseberries are also made into wine or vinegar. For desserts, the larger, thinner-skinned, sweeter types are picked when fully ripe. The European gooseberry is usually preferred to the American type.

Gooseberries are high in vitamin C and are a good source of fiber and bioflavonoids, plant pigments with antioxidant properties.

Family Saxifragaceae

Scientific name Ribes hirtellum (American gooseberry), Ribesgrossularia (European gooseberry) Common name gooseberry

MuLberRY

Family Moraceae Scientific name Morus species Common name mulberry

Botanically, the mulberry is not a berry but a collective fruit. After the flowers are pollinated, they and their fleshy bases swell and become succulent and full of juice, like the drupes of a blackberry, which the mulberry resembles in size and shape.

There are three principal species, the names of which refer not to the color of the fruit but to the color of the buds. The black mulberry (M. nigra) is native to western Asia and has been grown in Europe and the Middle East since ancient times for its fruits. Large, juicy, and bluish black, the black mulberry is no doubt the most flavorful, with its refreshing combination of sweetness and tartness. The American, or red, mulberry (M. rubra), indigenous to the eastern United States, grows wild from Massachusetts to the Gulf Coast. Usually a deep red-purple, the red mulberry is not as tasty as its black cousin. The white mulberry (M. alba) is the least tasty of the three, with an unpleasant sweetness that lacks the pleasing tartness of the black mulberry. The plant is native to eastern and central China, where the tree has long been cultivated for its leaves, which are the essential food for silkworms. The white mulberry became naturalized in Europe, and both the trees and the silkworms were introduced to the United States in early colonial times in an attempt to start a silk industry.

Mulberries can be eaten raw or used to make jams, jellies, sorbet, ice cream, frozen meringue, pudding, and sauces. Slightly unripe, tart berries are best for making pies and tarts. Mulberries also make an interesting wine and are excellent as dried fruits. In medieval England, the berries were pureed to make murrey, which was added to spiced meats or used as a pudding.

Mulberries are high in vitamin C.

Raspberry

Family Rosaceae

Scientific name Rubus idaeus, Rubus strigosus Common name raspberry

Family Rosaceae

Scientific name Rubus idaeus, Rubus strigosus Common name raspberry

Raspberries are small aggregate fruits, composed of numerous, small drupelets, each containing a small seed and clustering together around a central core. They range from a half to an inch or more in diameter. When the berry is picked from the stem, the core remains behind, leaving a hollow cavity in the fruit. Raspberry varieties are distinguished by color. Red berries are the most common and popular, black raspberries are somewhat smaller and less round, and golden berries, which are available only in limited quantities, can vary from yellow to orange, amber, and even white. Raspberries are fragrant and sweet, with a slight tartness. The raspberry is sometimes considered the most intensely flavored of the berry family.

Traces of wild raspberries have been found at prehistoric sites in Asia, and American Indians used wild raspberries medicinally. Red raspberries have been cultivated in Europe for more than 400 years, brought home by Crusaders who found them growing in the Mount Ida region in Turkey. During the 18th century, the cultivation of raspberries improved, and by the 19th century, they were being grown widely throughout Europe and North America. By the 1860s, more than 40 varieties were known. Today, about 90 percent of all domestic raspberries are grown in Oregon, Washington, and California, with some imported from Canada and Chile during the off-peak season.

Raspberries are thorny, perennial bushes that can reach heights of 10 feet. They prefer cool summers, mild winters, and a dry harvest season. Three years is required for the bushes to begin producing the delicate white flowers from which the berries form on erect stalks or canes. Mature berries must be handled carefully because they are fragile and easily damaged. Some are packed in small containers for the fresh market, but the bulk of the harvest is processed into frozen, concentrated, or canned forms.

Raspberries are best eaten within 1 to 2 days of purchase. If possible, they should not be washed, because they absorb water and become mushy, but they can be rinsed quickly just before serving. Whole berries can be frozen for up to 1 year.

Fresh raspberries make a delicious topping for cereals, pancakes and waffles, yogurt, puddings, cake, and ice cream; a colorful, sweet addition to fruit or green salads; and an excellent snack eaten right out of hand. They can be preserved in brandy or syrup or added to vinegar to make a delicious salad dressing. Raspberries make wonderful tarts, jams, jellies, compotes, wine, and beer and are an elegant addition to champagne and punch. Cooked raspberries, mixed with a touch of lemon or orange juice to enhance their color, make a tasty sauce for chicken and fish dishes.

Raspberries are high in vitamin C and are also a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Strawberry

Family Rosaceae

Scientific name Fragaria vesca, Fragaria americana Common name strawberry

Family Rosaceae

Scientific name Fragaria vesca, Fragaria americana Common name strawberry

The sweet, juicy, bright-red strawberry is actually not really a fruit in the botanical sense but a swelling of the plant's stalks that occurs after the flowers are pollinated. The real fruits are the 200 seeds, called achene, that cover the berry's surface. The plant itself is a low-growing perennial that produces horizontal runners, or stolons, that spread out from the base and take root to form new plants.

The hundreds of varieties of strawberries in the United States, which vary in size, color, and taste, are distinguished primarily by their locale. Some California varieties include Chandler, Selva, Seascape, and Camaroso. Florida varieties include the Florida 90, with large, red, flavorful fruit; the Tioga, a large, vigorous plant with medium-quality berries; the Florida Belle, a disease-resistant variety with red, conical fruit; and the Sequoia, with high-quality fruit that tends to be soft when ripe.

Strawberries, which are native to Europe and North and South America, thrive in temperate zones throughout the world and have a history more than 2,000 years old. Wild strawberries, which are smaller but more fragrant and flavorful than cultivated varieties, grew in Italy as early as the 3rd century B.C. American Indians are known to have cultivated strawberries by the 17th century to eat fresh and also dried and added to winter soups. They also used them medicinally, to make dyes, and as preservatives for other food. In the early 18th century, the French developed larger strawberries by crossing two wild varieties. These plants are believed to be the source of the large cultivated strawberries we enjoy today.

Although the source of the name "strawberry" is unknown, it may derive from the practice of placing straw around the plants for protection, from the runners that the plant sends out, or from the Anglo-Saxon verb "to strew," which could have led to names such as strea-bergen, streberie, straibery, and, finally, the English strawberry.

Strawberries prefer well-drained, moist, sandy soils, warm days, and cool nights. The flowers, usually white but sometimes pink, give rise to berries that ripen about a month after the blossoms form. Most varieties of strawberry continue to bloom and produce fruit throughout the harvest season. The fruit is picked at the peak of its freshness and does not ripen after harvesting. Because strawberries are easily bruised, they are carefully hand-picked, sorted, and packed in the field and then rushed to cooling facilities. They are stored for only 24 hours before being shipped in refrigerated trucks to markets.

In California, where strawberries have been cultivated since the early 1900s, the fruit grows 10 months of the year, from January through November; the peak season falls between April and June. In fact, California produces more than 80 percent of all domestic strawberries, about 1 billion tons per year. In Florida, the second-largest producing state, strawberries are grown in the winter months only, and Oregon cultivates berries mostly for frozen products. Although other states produce strawberries, they usually are available only in the warm summer months for local markets. Some strawberries are also imported from Mexico and New Zealand.

The freshness and flavor of strawberries can be preserved if they are not washed until just before they are to be eaten. Fresh strawberries are most frequently served sliced over small shortcakes, topped with whipped cream; used as a garnish for appetizer and cheese platters; or added to fresh fruit tarts. Whole, long-stemmed strawberries dipped in chocolate make an elegant dessert. Strawberries are also added to rhubarb pies and made into preserves. Mixed in a blender with low-fat milk or yogurt, honey, and other fruits, they make a refreshing, nutritious shake.

Strawberries are high in vitamin C.

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