Celebrating Cranberries

Cranberries are one of those foods so associated with a particular meal that you seldom (probably never) consider making them except for that particular meal. And I know you know to which meal I allude.

They are rightfully a special occasion food because they dress a plate up like no other dish I can think of. They always look spectacular; they always hold their gorgeous crimson color no matter how tortured they are. Be they overcooked, drained from a can, or just plain neglected. They reward you with a deep ruby red no other food can match.

And it’s not just any red. It is, without a doubt, a gorgeous shade of red existing in this over-produced Technicolor dream that is modern society.

It’s not just that it’s a pretty color either. It is a versatile color. It helps create a color palette on the plate that just looks so well planned. This particular shade of red looks great with all the other traditional colors of Thanksgiving. Be it the elegant ivory tones of mashed potatoes, the earthy tans, and browns of turkey, gravy, and stuffing, or the deeply sophisticated greens of our favorite holiday veggies. Cranberries even look terrific with the rich warm tones of orange colored yams, squash and sweet potatoes.

There are other “once-a-year” foods, but most of these (eggnog, candy canes, matzos, try and think of some more and mention them in comments below…) are not nearly as interesting as the cranberry.

There is another reason we reserve cranberries for this time of year too. That’s because cranberries are a â€œonce-a-year” food by nature’s design. It’s hard to believe but the scientists, farmers and business folk of modern agro-industry have not been able to figure out how to manipulate the growing habits of the cranberry. It still comes ripe for only a couple of months each autumn.

Cranberries are grown almost exclusively in their native North America. But an even more interesting fact than that also helps contribute to cranberries to “once-a-yearâ” status. Cranberries are cultivated on about 48,000 North American acres on the entire planet (excepting about 1000 acres in Chile)! They just can’t make them work anyplace else.

Cranberries are very finicky about the environment. Every acre of cranberry cultivation requires 3–4 additional acres of surrounding pristine wetlands. That means in order to farm 48,000 acres of cranberries, there must be as much as 192,000 acres of wetlands maintained in their natural condition. That’s 192,000 acres of natural habitat to support indigenous plants, insects, birds, fish and other wildlife. That’s 192,000 acres doing its job in ground water filtration and recharge – just as nature intended.

And my favorite part is they can’t figure out any other way to produce cranberries. So that means the scientists, farmers and business folk of the modern agro-industry FIGHT to keep those 192,000 acres pristine. If that is not reason alone to eat, support and celebrate the cranberry then stop reading this blog. Go someplace else. You are not wanted here!

But for me, the very best reason to honor the cranberry is and always will be, it’s association with my favorite Holiday, (like I even have to tell you) Thanksgiving.

It’s true, over the years; I have glorified Thanksgiving all out of proportion. I am sure the Thanksgivings of my youth were hectic, slightly compromised meals that were really just a prelude to football. But in my mind, I still associate it with one of the few times we kids sat in the sacred dining room! This room held special powers in my childhood brain. We would always be happy, well fed, and well dressed. Now I am not saying food was ever withheld from the Henry kids, or we were in any way mistreated during our daily family meals. But we could be together when we ate at the big table, in a way we never could when dinner competed with the Brady Bunch, homework, and kick-the-can.

Now I am sure I am not alone in making these attachments. As Americans, we have very strict guidelines about the Thanksgiving meal. These guidelines developed in childhood, so they are rock solid! You can try to be nouveau about the whole thing and serve sushi or some other of your other favorite foods. But deep inside you – somewhere, you know it’s just wrong.

I’ll allow that there is some wiggle room regarding the menu. But you know, it really must include Turkey – and Turkey requires cranberries. The meal itself is usually quite rich by most people day-to-day eating habits. So you really must have that sweet-tart, bright note of acidity to punctuate all that rich unctuousness.

But that doesn’t mean you have to use a traditional recipe. Cranberries are a great place to experiment year after year!

Why not try something unusual. How about a salsa of cranberry, jalapeno, sweet onion with just a touch of honey and lime zest!

Or make it warm and inviting with vanilla, brown sugar, apple chunks, and almonds. You could have the leftovers for breakfast over granola!

Cranberries and pears are an incredible combination.

You could simply serve them dried or as a sauce in a cheese course with a creamy Brie.

You could experiment with different liquors too. Cranberries and Port. Cranberries with Cabernet, orange zest, and star anise. Cranberries and Cognac as I have in the attached video.

There are unexpected partners too. Imagine how beautiful dark red cherries and cranberries would look on the plate. They develop a very complex taste when paired together. Toss in some sliced pears to achieve a delicate balance. Cook them together on the stove. Add a little cider vinegar for acidity. Some nutmeg and cinnamon will help marry all the flavors.

Do a simple twist on the traditional with tangerines and Chinese Five-Spice Powder.

Have you tried chopping raw cranberries, with celery, orange zest, and nuts as a sort of relish? This is how my mom made it.

If your climate allows why not serve the meal outdoors (I have done it here in Los Angeles). You could make it a very casual event and do the cranberries “slaw-style” with apples and cabbage.

I am sure by now you realize I could go on and on. But I’ll stop here with the hope that your imagination has been stirred. So try something new, experiment, and send me the recipe when you’re done! GREG


Greg Henry