The Thanksgiving feast is the showcase for two items of seasonal produce we generally ignore at other times of the year. We've reviewed the case of the pumpkin in recent weeks, and now I want to focus on the cranberry, a tart, colorful fixture on many tables during the November-December holiday feeding frenzy.
If your exposure to the cranberry has been limited to factory-canned cranberry sauce, you have not really experienced the cranberry. Canned cranberry sauce is that can-shaped cylinder of dark red gelatin-like substance that shows up on many Thanksgiving tables.
To magnify its charm, this type of sauce, which makes an amusing sucking sound as it slides out of the can, often bears indentations around its middle from the can. If it could talk, it would be screaming, "No effort!"
The purpose of canned sauce on the Thanksgiving table is largely ceremonial. Many of us treat it as a necessary component of the meal, yet we would be hard-pressed to find a family in America that serves canned cranberry sauce and actually finishes it off during the meal. I suspect that far more canned cranberry sauce goes into the trash than is actually eaten during the Thanksgiving dinner.
For all of these reasons, I am going to suggest that an interesting fresh cranberry sauce or relish would have more takers. These things are so simple to make that my dog Roscoe could do it, and fresh cranberries are ridiculously cheap during the holidays.
Moreover, cranberries are probably the most healthy part of the holiday meal. They are high in disease-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients, and we'd be better off to be treating them as a central part of our diet rather than mere trimmings for a feast.
As a small child, I thought the cranberry sauce was the most interesting part of the meal. It was colorful and tart but sweet, and my mother submerged two cinnamon sticks in the sauce while it chilled. My brother and I each got one to suck on.
The sauce she made was the recipe you'll find in basic cookbooks and on the side of the bag containing the cranberries. For a pound of fresh cranberries, dissolve 1 to 2 cups of sugar in 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Heat mixture to boiling. Add the cranberries and cook just until the skins pop. Remove from heat, and add cinnamon sticks. Let cool and then refrigerate.
Recipes for more nuanced cranberry relishes are out there as well. Here's one from Nicole Routhier's "Fruit Cookbook" that could be used beyond Thanksgiving dinner. This relish also can be preserved in jars, using standard canning techniques, and then given as holiday gifts.
2 small navel oranges
1 bag (12 ounces) fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over
1 1/2 cups cranberry juice cocktail
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup raisins or chopped dates
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
Without peeling the oranges, finely chop them.
Combine the oranges, cranberries, cranberry juice, sugar and raisins in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the cranberries have popped, about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture is thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the walnuts.
Either pack and process in jars or refrigerate. Without canning, the relish can safely be refrigerated for 2 weeks.
Makes about three 12-ounce jars.