Friday, November 16, 2007


Cranberries, like blueberries, are native to North America. They grow on hearty, shrubby, long-lived vines—some in Massachusetts are said to be 150 years old—and have been cultivated since the early 19th century. Today farmers harvest about 40,000 acres a year for sale, 14,000 of them in Massachusetts alone. Being from New Jersey (another major growing area) and then spending most of adulthood in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, I’ve pretty much lived in cranberry country all my life. In the fall (usually early October), if you live near the bogs, it is quite a beautiful sight to see them flooded and ready for gathering.
The association of cranberries with Massachusetts, particularly Cape Cod, is historical as well as geographical. They were first cultivated there, and for nearly two centuries the state has been the site of most advances in methods and equipment used to grow and harvest them. As a source of nourishment, and a useful medicine and dye, they were one of the important wild plants introduced to the Pilgrims by Native Americans.
The Pilgrim connection may be why many people have traditionally thought of cranberries only at Thanksgiving, but thanks to both science and the availability of more ways to eat cranberries, that is changing. While it has long been known that cranberries were high in vitamin C (even before the scientific basis was understood, sailors used cranberries to prevent scurvy), more recent research suggests that cranberries may have promising antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties. In part for these reasons, cranberries in one form or another—dried, juiced, or baked into cakes and muffins—are becoming a year-round habit. I particularly like 100% cranberry juice cut with water, and use it to make mixed drinks and in cooking.
While many, many cultivars of cranberry have been developed, some exclusively for commercial juicing or other purposes, when you buy your cranberries at the market you are likely to be buying something very close to the original. These early varieties, including Early Blacks, Early Reds, and Howes (the very first cultivar, named after the Dennis, Massachusetts man who figured it all out), are still favorites for the table. Cranberries freeze well, so buy an extra bag or two for the freezer; they should not have been previously frozen when you buy them at this time of year—one of the true really fresh native products that are widely available. You can use them straight from the freezer well into the spring and early summer with no loss of quality.
Cranberry Chutney
I make a cranberry chutney every year, for serving with the turkey, but also with other meats and poultry, cheeses, on sandwiches, or as an ingredient in assembled appetizers and desserts. I have a few variations that I like, including this one. If you haven’t discovered the many uses of caraway powder (or caraway generally), here’s your chance. Don’t stop here: try it in chili or shortbread, as a few favorite examples.

2 generous cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 hard pear or apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
¾ cup chopped onion
2 T finely minced fresh peeled gingerroot
Zest of a large navel orange
¼ cup fresh sweet apple cider
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 tea chocolate extract (optional)
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
¼ tea salt
¼ tea red pepper flakes
1/3 cup walnut meats, broken into small pieces by hand
Combine all ingredients except the nuts in an open, preferably slope-sided, stainless steel pan. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat to the point that it is bubbling but not rapidly boiling—a medium-low to medium heat. Cook 15 minutes only; avoid the temptation to stir. Remove from the heat and gently fold in the nuts. Transfer to a serving dish to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Cranberry Cheese Cannolis
I like cheese with cranberry (in part because cheese balances the acid in the fruit), and these “cannolis” (really a stuffed frico) offer an easy, flavorful appetizer that suits the season. The chutney can be made days or even weeks ahead (put in a canning jar to store), and the frico shells can be made a day ahead, although they are best the same day. In making the fricos, I depart from tradition out of laziness: I grate the cheese coarsely rather than fine, and use the oven to avoid the tedious cooking on the stove-top. You’d think these would be fragile (like their finely grated counterparts) or drippy when filled, but they’re not. Actually, they’re delicious. Makes about 10.

10 oz very sharp, well-aged white cheddar
1 T flour
½ tea Dutch ground caraway
2/3 cup cranberry chutney, approximately
Preheat oven to 425 F. Grate the cheese on the largest holes of a box grater. Mix with the flour and ground caraway. Place a Silpat® mat on a sheet pan, and drop handfuls of the cheese into little mounds, well separated, onto the sheet—no more than 6 for a half-sheet pan or standard size cookie sheet, as they will spread. Press them lightly with the palm of your hand; they should be about 3” in diameter. Place them in the oven and cook for 6-8 minutes; you might check them after 5. Timing takes a bit of experimentation. You want to remove them from the oven when they are well browned at the edges and the bubbling white centers look melted but uncooked. Set the pan on the counter and let them cool until the bubbles subside—when you will see that the centers, too, are brown. After they have cooled about 2 minutes, but while they are still warm, gently roll them around a cannoli mold or, if you don’t have one (I don’t) another cylindrical form: I use one end of my tapered French rolling pin. You can do it with them still sitting on the sheet, loosening them if necessary with a spatula; if they are still too warm when you roll them, they will collapse a bit, but if they are just right, they will hold their round shape. Eat any that collapse. With a teaspoon or, preferably, a long-handled iced-tea spoon, fill the cannolis with about a tablespoon of chutney each, working from both sides and carefully pushing it into the tube. Serve. As with the Italian dessert cannolis, these are best filled as close to serving time as possible, all things considered. Of course, you can serve the shells plain, too, as lacey crackers.

Photo of cranberry harvest in NJ by Keith Weller, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service

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