There’s something particularly festive about fresh cranberries. Whether it’s their vibrant color or the way they pair perfectly with roasted turkey and apple pie, cranberries seem to herald the holidays.
Cranberries are one of only a few fruits native to North America, and were used by several Native American tribes for medicinal purposes and to dye clothing. They were also mixed with meat and fat to make pemmican, an early form of field rations. It’s possible that Natives shared their cranberries with pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, while settlers in turn contributed the English name – “cranberry” is a corruption of “craneberry,” since cranberry blossoms look like the head and neck of a crane. Legend has it that cranberries became even more firmly associated with Thanksgiving when Ulysses S. Grant ordered his camp cooks to make cranberry sauce during the siege of Petersburg in 1864.
Modern consumers can appreciate more than just the taste – the cranberry has been designated a superfruit due to its high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C. Grown in sandy beds in the cooler areas of North America and Europe, cranberries are white when they start growing, and are only harvested in September and October once they turn their characteristic scarlet hue. Savvy cooks can buy extra bags of the abundant berries now and stash them in the freezer for sauces, muffins, and scones throughout the year.
Cranberries play well with various other fruits, including pears, apples, oranges, and mangoes. Sweetened, they bake nicely into pies or other sweet concoctions. Dried, they flirt appealingly with pecans and goat cheese in salads. Food-processed, they make a quick relish for turkey, chicken, or pork.
Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy cranberry flavor, however, is a simple fruit compote. Fresh cranberries bask in the low heat of your stove with other fruit, sugar, and spices for an incredibly versatile treat. Spoon some of the sauce alongside savory dishes like roast pork loin, or keep it sweet as a topping for vanilla ice cream. Toss a crisp or crumble topping over the compote for a simple baked dessert. Pour some compote over your morning pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal for a delicious kick of flavor. Stir some into Greek yogurt, or just eat it straight out of a bowl.
This compote is also almost endlessly variable. Try simmering the berries in orange juice and add orange zest for a citrusy flavor, or swap out the cinnamon and nutmeg for cardamom and ginger to add an exotic twist.
Best of all, it requires very little work – just rinse fresh cranberries, add accompanying fruit and spices, and simmer until the berries explode and then reduce. While it simmers slowly on the stove, you could bake a couple different pies to please your holiday guests – or serve them all cranberry compote and use that free time to take a nap instead.
12 oz fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked over
2 pears, peeled and diced into half-inch cubes
1 cup water
2 tablespoons vanilla
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer over low heat until most of the cranberries have burst and liquid is syrupy, about 45 minutes.
(Published in the Los Altos Town Crier)