What's In Season: Cranberries
Apart from the turkey itself, cranberries are probably the most iconic ingredient in any Thanksgiving dinner. What ends up on our holiday table will be decided by tradition, ethnic favorites, and sometimes a wish to do something different this year. But odds are that cranberries will be included.
It's my personal opinion cranberries are a Thanksgiving must-have because they provide rare relief when it comes to flavor and color. Think about how pale, white, and beige most Thanksgiving menus are: turkey, gravy, apples, potatoes, squash, pearl onions, etc. etc. Cranberry sauce adds a shock of tangy taste plus a zap of color on an otherwise bland table.
That color is a sign of cranberries' nutrition. Some call them one of nature's "super foods" and for good reason: they're full of antioxidants and vitamin C, plus traces of calcium, iron and other good things. With lots of fiber and no fat, a cup has only 51 calories. But they're also high in acidity -- only lemons and limes have more acid -- so we almost always add sugar to get that mouth-watering combo of tang and sweet.
Cranberries are the fruit of a shrub that grows in bogs in cooler climates. Massachusetts, especially Cape Cod, a place we associate with cranberries for reasons having to do with both Pilgrims and the Ocean Spray Company, is an ideal location. But so are Oregon, Washington, Michigan, parts of Canada, and other northern growing places. The berries are harvested and sold fresh in the fall but they're processed and sold year-round in juices, as dried fruit, and as canned products like the iconic jellied cranberry sauce.
The fruit is native to North America and like squash and tomatoes that now are found on the global table, cranberries were brought from the new world to Europe in the 19th century, becoming particularly popular in Russia and Nordic countries (also popular there are lingonberries which are related to cranberries, but not exactly the same).
Cooking With Cranberries
Cranberry Sauce. If your favorite way to eat cranberries is in a sauce but you've never cooked your own, I have good news for you -- it's essentially fail-proof to make. That's because the berries contain a high level of pectin, a natural and harmless chemical that causes things to jell. (Pectin is a commonly used jelling agent in making jellies and jams and other foods.) Combining a bag of fresh cranberries with a little water or orange juice plus sugar, and heating it until the berries pop will automatically become cranberry sauce. The recipe that's printed on most plastic bags of fresh cranberries will not disappoint.
If you want to make a sauce with a bit more complexity, you can add a savory herb like minced rosemary, or some heat with tiny-diced jalapeno pepper, or citrus and toasted pecans as in our Cranberry Pecan Conserve.
Other ways to add cranberry flavor to your food and drink --
- Dried cranberries are semi-sweet without any added sugar and still have cranberry's tang. Ocean Spray has branded theirs as "craisins" but all dried cranberries taste the same and you can buy them in bulk for much less at many health food and organic markets. You can also substitute dried cranberries for the much more costly dried cherries in almost any recipe. Dried cranberries are wonderful added to baked foods like nut breads, oatmeal cookies in place of raisins, and to an apple pie or crisp. But they also add sweet complexity to savory foods, such as poultry stuffing or as in our recipe for Rotisserie Chicken Salad.
- Fresh cranberries are also good for baking, as added to scones or muffins, as a key ingredient in a sweet soufflé, or included in a sweet filling for baked apples.
- If you love cooking with cranberries year-round, they freeze brilliantly. Just buy extra while supplies last, put the bags right into the freezer, and when you're ready to cook them, there's no need to defrost: just empty the frozen berries into a colander, rinse, pick off any little stems or berries that seem shriveled, and start your recipe. Many say you can freeze cranberries for 9 months but I've often gone for a year, from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, without any problem.
- Sweetened cranberry juice has many health advantages but it's also high in sugar. There are low-calorie or light versions but if you don’t want artificial sweeteners, you can just dilute the vibrant-flavored juice with seltzer or water.
- Cosmopolitans. Made popular by Carrie Bradshaw and the girls, this cocktail has the pretty pink of a girlie drink but the potency of a manly cocktail. Here's the way I was taught to make the drink by the folks at Sherry-Lehmann:
1 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. cranberry juice cocktail
1/2 oz. triple sec or Cointreau (both are bitter orange-flavored liqueurs)
1/2 oz. Rose's Lime Juice
Combine in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and serve in a chilled martini glass. As variations you can substitute lemon vodka for the regular and fresh lime juice for the Rose's Lime Juice. The cranberry juice is added mostly for color and what you're going for is a drink that is pale pink and a flavor that is sweet/tart.
- Cranberries are perfect in chutney because the flavors bridge the sweet/savory/heat that are the hallmarks of chutney. We've added a link below to an appealing version from the wonderful Toronto food blog Closet Cooking: Cooking From a Closet-Sized Kitchen, that substitutes fall seasonings for the traditional chutney spices.
- Cranberry desserts can feature the berries themselves instead of just using them as an added accent. I've been making Cranberry-Walnut Squares for as many holiday seasons as I can remember (see our recipe). It's a sweet egg-based dough spread over a base of fresh cranberries, walnuts and butter that bakes to become a cross between an upside-down cake and a cookie. It's quick to make and nice to have on hand if the holidays are a time when you unexpectedly have guests and want to offer something with a cup of tea.