As the holiday season kicks into high gear, our thoughts turn to family gatherings and tradition. Okay, the pressure of holiday shopping is foremost in our thoughts, but stay with me on this little ‘Currier and Ives’ vignette for just a minute.
One of the holiday season’s greatest pleasures comes in the form of feasts…from parties to brunches to formal dinners. Gathering around the table is one of the loveliest ways to celebrate pretty much anything but at this time of year, it’s particularly sweet.
Cranberries have played a significant role in holiday feasts for so long that I’m not sure anyone knows when and where it all began. From chutneys to relishes to desserts, these bright red berries grace holiday tables with jewel-like elegance and a tart, clean flavor.
Grown mostly in North America, the cranberry belongs to the large berry family that includes the blueberry, bilberry and heather. Cultivated in the United States, especially in Massachusetts, cranberries have become an American tradition, with far less use in Europe, where it remains a relatively unknown fruit. Even here in the States, holiday popularity aside, cultivation of the cranberry remains rather modest.
Cranberries grow on bushes and require sandy, damp, peaty soil to thrive. Very sensitive to cold, cranberry bushes consist of ligneous branches that grow vertically from the roots, like the raspberry bush. After three years, they finally yield fruit…berries resembling small cherries. In the autumn, the cranberries are harvested by flooding the fields, causing the mechanically detached berries to float to the surface.
Juicy, with a sharp, tart taste, cranberries are only available to us in the fall and early winter and because of their high acidity, are rarely eaten raw. Baked into muffins, added to apple pies, cooked with other fruits into chutneys or added to savory dishes for a zesty snap, cranberries blend well with sweeter fruits like apples and pears, as well as with spicy and savory ingredients.
Choose cranberries that are firm, plump and slightly shiny, avoiding any that are discolored, dull, have whitish spots on them or are wrinkled and soft. Highly perishable, wash cranberries just before use and keep them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. A little tip, you can dehydrate cranberries by simply placing them on a baking sheet in a warm oven, with the door ajar until they dry, creating a splendid tart snack.
Cranberries are a rich source of vitamin C, potassium and citric acid, which gives them their characteristic tart flavor. Known for their astringent properties, cranberries are said to stimulate circulation, improve the complexion, and aid in digestion. (Maybe that’s why they are so popular at Thanksgiving feasts.) Their acidic and astringent compounds make them perfect to aid in the relief of urinary tract infections and inflammations.
Here’s one of my favorite cranberry side dishes…and it’s so simple, you need not wait for the mistletoe to be hung to prepare it.
No sweet jelled sauces out of can for your loved ones…not when a fresh cranberry chutney is this easy to make. And since you can prepare it the day before, everyone wins.
12 ounces fresh cranberries, rinsed well
1-2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, diced
grated zest of 1 orange
juice of 1 orange
½ cup unsweetened, dried apricots
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch sea salt
3-4 tablespoons brown rice syrup
Place all ingredients, except syrup, in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover and reduce heat to low, cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 25 minutes. Remove cover and add syrup to taste. Continue cooking over low heat, uncovered, until the syrup thickens, about 10-12 minutes more. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature before transferring to a jar. Seal tightly and chill completely. Before serving, bring chutney to room temperature. Makes 6-8 servings.