- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

For an American Christmas, what could be more appropriate than cranberries?

First of all, there’s that beautiful rosy red color, the perfect accent to the Christmas table. Second, there is availability. Fresh cranberries are sold only in the fall, generally from September through December. Third, they go so well with traditional Christmas entrees such as roast turkey, duck, goose or ham.

There is nothing wrong with serving cranberries gelled from a can, but don’t be limited to that. I have a few suggestions for wild and crazy cranberries that will spice any menu.

Cranberries are perfect for traditional celebrations, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. The cranberry is a historic fruit. Along with blueberries and Concord grapes, the cranberry has a unique place in American cuisine.

These 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 pawpaw and the Saskatoon berry, but these aren’t grown commercially.)

American Indians used wild cranberries extensively as a food and also as a fabric dye and healing agent. When the European settlers landed, they, in turn, adopted the versatile cranberry and, in addition to the Indian uses, the settlers used it as a valuable bartering tool. American whalers and sailors also carried cranberries, which are full of vitamin C, to help them avoid scurvy on their long voyages.

The United States still produces much of the world’s cranberries. Wisconsin is the largest producer, accounting for more than half the crop. Maine is next with 25 percent or so, followed by New Jersey, Washington state and Oregon, which 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 under water. Cranberries do require water in the beginning and end of the growing cycle, but not throughout. The season begins in winter when growers flood the bogs with water that freezes and insulates the vines from frost.

As the snow melts and spring arrives, the bogs are drained and the plants grow in dry beds. Blossoms appear and in mid-July, petals fall from the flowers, leaving tiny green nodes that, after weeks of summer sun, become red, ripe cranberries.

Most cranberries are harvested by the water method. Harvesting machines loosen the cranberries from the vine. Because they contain small air pockets, the cranberries float to the surface. The berries are then scooped up and taken to processing plants. A small percentage of cranberries are dry-harvested.

Having fresh cranberries is easy. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. If you buy cranberries in a plastic bag, that bag can go directly into the freezer and will freeze nicely for up to one year.

Bulk cranberries can be frozen in a freezer bag or freezer container and will last up to nine months in the freezer. Frozen cranberries can be used in recipes without thawing, and it is actually easier to chop or grind them while frozen.

Studies suggest that cranberries can help prevent urinary tract infections and reduce the risk of gum disease, ulcers and heart disease. There is some evidence that cranberries have anti-cancer properties; they contain powerful antioxidants that can help protect us from a number of diseases.

The recipes that follow are some of my favorites and are a bit different from the usual cranberry sauce.

Cranberry sorbet

2 cups sugar

Water

1½ pounds (5 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries

½ cup lime juice, or to taste

2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier (see note)

Combine sugar with 2 cups water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add cranberries and simmer covered until berries burst, about 10 minutes. Strain mixture through a medium mesh strainer, pressing down gently on solids to extract the juices. Discard solids and chill the mixture, covered, for at least 2 hours.

Stir in lime juice to taste and liqueur, and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden. Makes about 1 quart.

Note: If you prefer a nonalcoholic version, skip the Grand Marnier and add one of the orange-flavored syrups used in coffee that are now widely available.

Cranberry ketchup

This is delicious served with grilled or roasted meats, especially pork and poultry. It’s also great as a sandwich spread and with special cheeses.

12 ounces washed fresh or frozen whole cranberries

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped, 1½ cups

3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

½ cup red wine

½ cup wine or apple cider vinegar

3/4 cup sugar

½ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Combine cranberries, onion, garlic, wine, vinegar, sugar, 5-spice powder, pepper flakes and soy sauce in a deep, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat, partially cover, and reduce heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mixture will be thick and reduced.

With an immersion or regular blender, puree mixture and then strain through a medium strainer, pressing down hard on the solids with a spatula.

Store covered and refrigerated for up to 6 weeks or process in a water bath to store at room temperature for up to a year. Makes about 2 cups.

Fresh cranberry and tangerine salsa

1 12-ounce package fresh or frozen cranberries

2 medium tangerines, scrubbed

½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro or mint, or preferably a combination

1 cup sugar or to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Hot sauce

3/4 cup lightly toasted, finely chopped pecans or walnuts

Wash and pick over cranberries. Cut unpeeled tangerines into eighths and pick out all the seeds.

Place cranberries, tangerines, cilantro or mint or a combination, sugar to taste, lemon juice and a few drops of hot sauce to taste in a food processor and chop in short bursts until relatively fine. Be careful not to over process; you still want some texture.

Taste for sweetness and add more sugar, if desired. Allow to sit for at least 1 hour for flavors to develop.

Just before serving, stir in nuts and adjust sweet-sour-hot flavors to taste.

Salsa can be stored (without nuts), covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for a month. Makes about 1 quart.

Elizabeth White’s steamed cranberry pudding

This recipe came from Tom Darlington of Medford, N.J., whose Aunt Elizabeth was one of the pioneers in the cranberry industry. She is credited with creating individual cellophane packaging as part of her work with the Ocean Spray co-operative.

Mr. Darlington makes 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 make it in an empty coffee can with a tight-fitting lid, the way my grandmother did.

2 teaspoons baking soda

Water

½ cup molasses

1½ cups flour, divided

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2 cups cranberries, cut in half

Butter for coating pudding mold

Dessert sauce (recipe follows)

Dissolve baking soda in ½ cup hot water. Pour soda mixture and molasses into a large bowl. Add ½ cup flour and mix until smooth. Add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cranberries and remaining flour, and mix until evenly moistened.

Butter inside of a pudding mold, pour batter in, cover tightly and steam in a covered pot for 1½ hours. Serve hot with dessert sauce. Makes about 8 servings.

DESSERT SAUCE

1 cup sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ cup heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

Place sugar, butter, cream, vanilla and salt in top of a double boiler and cook, whisking occasionally, until smooth. Serve warm.

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