Turkey is the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, but I can’t wait till the cranberry sauce is passed. When the bowl of roughly-textured, garnet-colored flavor comes my way, I’m good for a couple of heaping spoonfuls. Not only is the sauce fruity and boldly flavored, but it’s almost mouth puckeringly tart – the perfect foil to the rich Thanksgiving menu.
My sweet tooth is well known – I can’t pass up a pastry, muffin, cake, or cookie. But when it comes to fruit, I like it tart and tangy. Sweet fruit has to be balanced with with some acidity, that zing that makes the eating experience interesting.
It’s the difference between a sweet Popsicle and a refreshing glass of lemonade. Fruit pie fillings don’t taste right without some lemon juice to add pizzazz. The best fresh apple cider has to have some natural bite to brighten up the apple flavors. Wines with fruity sweetness are best when balanced with bracing acidity.
Cranberries are one of the few native North American fruits in wide production today. I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of fruits we enjoy – apples, peaches, pears, strawberries and more – come from away. Cranberries, blueberries, and concord grapes are the big three that were here when the Pilgrims arrived.
I like to hold back a little on the water and then add some booze at the end. Ginger liqueur adds an exotic note. Cointreau spikes it up with orange. Any fruit liqueur or brandy will work just as well. Splash in a couple tablespoons when the pot comes off the heat. There’s not enough alcohol to restrict the underage from enjoying.
Since tartness is my goal, I go for a scant cup of sugar. Sometimes I put in four thin slices of orange peel during cooking, and then fish them out when the sauce cools.
There’s some cranberry sauce in the back of the fridge all through the fall and winter. It’s not just for turkey. Roast Chicken is a no-brainer but it’s also great with pork, pot roast, and panini. Spread it on your sandwich, have a dab on the side of a salad, or mix with mayonnaise and mustard for a tasty condiment.
I can’t tell you when I made the transition, but as a kid, I would only eat the canned, jellied cranberry sauce. There’s nothing wrong with it as the gateway cranberry condiment, but now I like the grownup texture and added flavor of whole berries.
Beyond sauce, cranberries shine in muffins, quick breads, and even pie like the one in the November 11 New York Times. For a step up from everyday cranberry sauce, try the recipe for Cranberry Chutney from the Fresh Honey Cookbook by Laurey Masterton. With fresh orange, fall spices, honey, and vinegar, it’s a much
more complex condiment, good with almost any meat or aged cheese. Jars of the chutney make a great holiday season gift too.
Cranberries were used by the native Narragansett people in what is now New England as both food and dye. They introduced them to the Pilgrims who adopted them into their new world culture, including the Thanksgiving feast.
Ocean Spray, the big brand in cranberries, is a cooperative with over 700 grower-members, mostly in Massachusetts and Wisconsin. They’ve been very successful in broadening the cranberry market to include juices and more recently dried cranberries (which I find irresistible and add to almost anything).
The berries grow in shallow bogs of peaty, sandy soil widely found in southeastern Massachusetts and unique to just a few places. At harvest, the bogs are flooded to collect the berries. Knocked from their plants, the berries float to the surface and are gathered in one of the most spectacular and colorful displays in agriculture. The bogs remain flooded over the winter to protect the plants from harsh temperatures.
Right now I’m stocking up on cranberries – getting ahead on sauce for Thanksgiving and enjoying them when ever I can. A couple bags in the freezer will insure that I’ll be all set till spring. They are, without a doubt, one of my favorite flavors.