The cranberry, along with blueberries and the Concord grape, has a unique place in American cuisine. They are the three North American native fruits that are grown in commercial quantities. There are of course lots of other fruits native to North America such as the paw paw and the Saskatoon berry, but these aren’t grown commercially. Native Americans used wild cranberries extensively as a food and as a fabric dye and healing agent. When the European settlers landed, they in turn adopted the versatile cranberry and, in addition to the uses that Native Americans put it to, they also used it as a valuable bartering tool. American whalers and sailors also carried cranberries, which are full of Vitamin C, on their voyages to prevent scurvy.
The name “Cranberry” is thought to come from the Pilgrim name for the fruit, “crane berry”. It was called this because the small, pink blossoms that appear in the Spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane. It has also been called the “bounce berry” because they will bounce when ripe. This is in fact a good way to test for ripeness when you are buying them in bulk.
The USA still is the place where much of the world’s supply of cranberries comes from.
Wisconsin is the largest producer accounting for over half of the production. Maine is next with 25% or so followed by New Jersey, Washington and Oregon who make up the rest. Canada also produces a large crop of cranberries mainly in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia.
One of the common misconceptions about cranberries is that they are grown in or underwater. They do require water in the beginning and typically at the end of their growing cycle. The season begins in Winter when growers flood the bogs with water that freezes and insulates the vines from frost. As the Winter snow melts and Spring arrives, the bogs are drained, and the plants grow in dry beds. Blossoms soon appear and in mid-July, petals fall from the flowers leaving tiny green nodes which, after weeks of the summer sun, become red, ripe cranberries.
Cranberries are typically harvested in September and October. Most cranberries are harvested using the wet method when growers flood their bogs with water. They then use harvesting machines that loosen the cranberries from the vine. With small air pockets in their center, the cranberries float to the water’s surface. Growers corral the berries onto conveyors that lift them from the flooded bog onto trucks and into processing plants. A small percentage of cranberries are dry harvested. This process uses mechanical pickers, resembling lawnmowers with comblike conveyer belts that pick the berries and carry them to attached burlap bags.
If you buy cranberries in a plastic bag, the bag can go directly into the freezer. Bulk cranberries can be frozen in a freezer bag or freezer container. Cranberries will last up to nine months in the freezer. Frozen cranberries can be used in recipes without thawing since frozen berries will be soft when thawed, it is easier to chop or grind them while frozen.
The Health Benefits of Cranberries
During the last decade or so, several research studies have been done that suggest that cranberries are not only a healthy, low-calorie fruit, but they may also help prevent urinary tract infections and reduce the risk of gum disease, ulcers, heart disease and may have anticancer properties. Cranberries contain significant amounts of flavonoids and polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that are naturally manufactured by the body and/or are ingested, primarily as components of fruits and vegetables, that can stabilize harmful free radicals.
Under stress, the human body’s ability to produce antioxidants can become severely impaired.
There is good evidence that cranberries can serve as a good source of supplemental antioxidants. To put it simply, antioxidants protect our bodies from harmful molecules that we are exposed to every day of our lives. The body produces free radicals through normal metabolic activities. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, tobacco smoke, and exposure to certain naturally occurring chemicals can also be sources of free radical production. In short, we are exposed to potential sources of free radical production every day of our lives.
Following are some of my favorite cranberry recipes.
Makes about 4 cups
This is one of my favorites because it tastes great and the color is outrageous! Fresh cranberries are only available for a short time in the fall. You can however use frozen cranberries if you remembered to save some. This makes a great holiday gift.
4 cups whole cranberries (one 12-ounce bag)
2 1/2 cups vodka or light rum
2 cups sugar
Zest from one small orange
Rinse cranberries thoroughly and discard any stems or bruised berries. Coarsely chop the berries by hand or in a food processor and add to a clean jar with the rest of the ingredients. Cover and store in a cool dark spot for at least 2 months. Stir the contents every week or so to help dissolve sugar. Strain carefully and bottle with a tight-fitting cap or cork. Allow to age at least one more month before using. Lasts indefinitely.
Serve with a splash of sparkling water and an orange slice.
Makes about 2-1/2 cups
Make this homemade cranberry ketchup recipe whenever you have some extra cranberries that need a job. It is delicious as a “regular” ketchup with fries or on a burger, and it’s especially great on a turkey sandwich.
1 12-ounce bag of fresh or frozen cranberries
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
4 to 6 ounces brown sugar (4 will yield a super tangy ketchup. 6 ounces will give you a tangy but sweeter version. The sweet spot for me is 5 ounces)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seed
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Add all ingredients to a deep pot and bring to a boil. Cook over moderate heat for ten minutes, then puree with an immersion blender. Turn heat to low, and simmer to reduce the ketchup until it’s as thick as you want, an additional 15 minutes or so. Stir every few minutes to prevent sticking.
Off the heat, strain the ketchup thru a medium-mesh strainer to remove all the little bits of cranberry skin and seeds. Cranberries contain a fair amount of pectin, so your ketchup will thicken up even more as it cools. Store refrigerated and tightly covered for up to 6 months.
BAKED RICOTTA WITH SPICED CRANBERRIES
Serves 6 to 8
This makes a warm souffle-like cheese appetizer served with a spicy cranberry chutney to balance the richness of the cheese.
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 medium clove garlic, pressed of finely minced
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Spiced cranberries (recipe follows)
Crusty French bread for serving
Preheat the oven to 400°. Generously butter a 2- cup baking dish and set aside.
To a food processor add the ricotta, parmesan, egg, garlic, basil and black pepper. Pulse until smooth, about 2 minutes. Spoon the mixture into the buttered dish, set the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Serve warm topped with spiced cranberries and crusty French bread.
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups red wine
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
1 small star anise pod
1/4 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
2 cups fresh cranberries (1/2 bag)
In a small saucepan add the sugar, wine, cinnamon stick, star anise and peppercorns. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cranberries and cook over moderate heat until they begin to pop, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cranberries to a bowl. Bring the liquid to a boil and cook until it becomes syrupy, about 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick and star anise and return the reserved cranberries to the sauce. Set aside for service.
Makes about 1 quart
This makes a not-too-sweet palate cleanser when served by itself or a nice foil for fresh tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. My favorite use is to scoop a small ball into a martini glass and then splash a little vodka over it. A fun version of the classic “Cosmopolitan”.
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1-1/2 pounds (5 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (or to taste)
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier*
Add sugar and water to a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add cranberries and simmer covered until berries have burst, about 10 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a medium-mesh strainer, pressing down gently on the solids to extract the juices. Discard solids and chill the mixture covered for at least 2 hours. Stir in the lime juice, and liqueur and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to an airtight container and put in the freezer to harden. Will keep frozen for a week or so.
*If you prefer a non-alcoholic version, you can use one of the orange-flavored syrups used to flavor coffees that are now widely available.
FRESH CRANBERRY SAUCE WITH TANGERINE AND MINT
Makes about 3 cups
This fresh, uncooked relish is excellent with roast turkey and also ham, pork, and game. Try it with smoked meats and sausages too!
12 ounces (3 heaping cups) fresh or frozen cranberries
2 unpeeled mandarins or tangerines, scrubbed
1/4 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1-1/4 cups sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 – 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1/2 cup chopped, lightly toasted walnuts (optional)
Wash and pick over the cranberries. Cut the tangerines into eighths, peel and all, and remove and discard any seeds. Place all the ingredients (except walnuts) in a food processor and chop relatively finely in short bursts. Be careful not to over-process, you still want some texture. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if desired. Stir in walnuts just before serving, if using. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Can also be frozen.
ELIZABETH WHITE’S STEAMED CRANBERRY PUDDING
Serves 8 or so
This is a recipe I got from Tom Darlington of Medford New Jersey whose Aunt Elizabeth was one of the prominent pioneers in the cranberry industry. She is credited with creating individual cellophane packaging as part of her work with the Ocean Spray cooperative. Tom does this in an antique 6-cup steamer mold. You can buy steamed pudding molds in good cookware stores, especially around the holidays. You can also use an empty coffee can with a tight-fitting lid which is what my Grandmother did. He notes that “Aunt Elizabeth carefully cut each berry in half crosswise, which takes a long time! I cut them randomly and my daughter zips them briefly in the food processor. The flavor is the same but I think the larger pieces of the tart berries adds something.”
2 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup molasses
1-1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
2 cups cranberries cut in half
Butter for coating pudding mold
Dessert sauce (recipe follows)
Add soda mixture and molasses to a bowl. Add 1’2 cup flour and mix till smooth. Add spices, cranberries and rest of flour and mix. Till evenly moistened. Butter the inside of the pudding mold, cover tightly and steam in a covered pot for 1-1/2 hours. Serve hot with sauce.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
Add ingredients to the top of a double boiler and cook whisking occasionally till smooth. Serve warm.
A clafoutis is a French dessert with origins in the Limousin. Typically made with cherries, any fruits or berries will work nicely. It’s like a big baked pancake. It’s so simple to do that it should be in everyone’s dessert repertoire. Best served warm but also delicious served at room temperature.
Butter for coating the baking dish
1-1/4 cups whole milk
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups cranberries, rinsed and drained
Powdered sugar to garnish
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, if desired
Preheat the oven to 350°. Generously butter a medium-sized flameproof baking dish (6-cup capacity) at least 11/2 inches deep.
Place the milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour in a blender. Blend until smooth and frothy, about one minute. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the blender jar.
Pour a thin 1/4-inch layer of batter into the baking dish. Turn on a stove burner to medium-low and set the dish on top for a couple of minutes until the batter has set. Remove the dish from heat. Spread the cranberries over the batter. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup sugar over and pour on the rest of the batter. Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake for 50 minutes or so or until the top is puffed and lightly browned.
Sprinkle powdered sugar over and serve while still warm with a dollop of whipped cream if desired. The clafoutis will sink as it cools but no worries.
FRESH CRANBERRY VINAIGRETTE
Makes about 1-1/4 cups
The idea here is to balance the tart/sweet/salt/pepper elements to your own taste. If using frozen cranberries defrost before using. They tend to be difficult to puree in their frozen state.
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots or green onions (white part only)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice
1/3 – 1/2-cup canola or neutral olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper (preferably white) to taste
Add first 6 ingredients (thru lime juice) to a blender and puree. With motor running slowly add oil to desired consistency. Strain through a fine mesh strainer pushing down on solids. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Can be made ahead and stored covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days.
WILD RICE SALAD WITH CRANBERRIES AND PECANS
Serves 4 – 6
1 cup wild rice, well rinsed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 scallions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3/4 teaspoon orange zest and juice from one large orange
1 teaspoon honey or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Add rice, salt and 3 1/2 cups water to a pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low, cover and simmer until rice is done, about 50 minutes. Transfer rice to strainer to drain any excess water, then set aside to cool.
Combine rice with cranberries, pecans, scallions, olive oil, vinegar, orange zest, orange juice, and honey. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve.
All photos by John Burgess, Santa Rosa Press Democrat
John Ash© 2022