Cookbook co-author James Baker says that "Cranberries have played a supporting role in American cuisine for so long that we take the familiar red fruit for granted. ..." Now, just wait a minute. I may not be a food historian, but I think the American public knows a thing or two about the mother of all Thanksgiving fruits—we did invent the holiday, after all. Let's take a moment to assess what we can already say about our tart friends from the North.
Cranberries are a moody Irish band from the mid-'90s. Uh, no. You're thinking of The Cranberries. Honest mistake.
Cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving along with other New World foods like pumpkin, corn and turkey. Well, no. While wild cranberries were certainly available in 1621 (even in some parts of England), sugar was not. You'd have a tough time convincing anyone to tuck into a heaping pile of sour swamp pellets without something to tone down its astringency. Cranberry products didn't really catch on until British colonialism reared its ugly head and sugar prices went way down in the West.
Cranberries are excellent for the scurvy. Aye. That they are, matey.
Cranberries are giggly cylinders of sweet goo that grow in aluminum cans. Come on, guys! Don't you think it's time to start thinking outside of the can? Tradition is one thing, but pigeonholing these little gems into the same culinary niche year after year is just plain cruel. Cranberries are a remarkably versatile ingredient. They can move effortlessly between sour, savory and sweet, chewy and soft, hot, cold, bold and barely there. And here's the clincher: Fresh, whole cranberries are entering their peak season for flavor and affordability right now. It's the perfect time topick up a bag and experiment at home. If you're stuck for ideas, the Cranberry Companion (Baker and Clark, paperback, $9.95) is here to help. Who knows? You might just fall in love with a whole new holiday tradition.
Marmalade of Quince with Cranberries
Quince is not a fruit that ripens like an apple or a pear. It will remain hard and then rot, but its fragrance is incredible. It also is one of the highest fruits in pectin content, requiring no jelling agent to make a great preserve. Combined with the pectin from cranberries, this is the simplest of natural marmalades. This is a marmalade that is wonderful with toast or brioche, but it works quite well as a fruit compote at breakfast.
Makes about 6 cups
4 quince, peeled, cored and quartered, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 4-inch cinnamon sticks
3 whole cloves
4 slices of fresh ginger, peeled and cut to the size of a quarter
3 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon lime zest
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1) Cover all of the ingredients with cold water in a nonreactive pan (enamel or cast iron are good). Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook slowly for about 30 minutes, allowing the pectin to extract from the quince and cranberries.
2) Remove the pan from the heat. Measure or estimate the volume of the mixture and add an equal amount of sugar. Stir to combine.
3) Return to heat and continue to cook for another 30 minutes, or until the mixture thickens. Whatever you do, don't let it scorch! Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
4) Spoon the marmalade into sterile jars and refrigerate.
Pork Terrine with Figs and Cranberries
Though French in concept, the cranberries make this a very American hors d'oeuvre or first course. If you have a Le Creuset pâté terrine it is the ideal cooking vehicle for this dish. If not, use small individual bread loaf pans and top them with aluminum foil, tied in place with kitchen twine.
1 pound of freshly ground pork
1/4 pound of high-quality bacon (the fake smokey flavor of cheap bacon will ruin the dish)
1 extra-large egg
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
I tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
I teaspoon sea salt
12 dried figs and 1/2 cup dried cranberries covered with ruby port and simmered to rehydrate
1/2 cup of the reserved port used to rehydrate cranberries and figs
1/2 pound of slab bacon for lining the terrine, also of high quality
3 bay leaves
1 foil-wrapped clay brick for weight
1) Preheat the oven to 350°. Using a food processor, finely chop the 1/4 pound of bacon. Add the ground pork, egg, onion, garlic and dry seasonings, except for the bay leaves. Pulse several times until the mixture is thoroughly combined. Remove to a bowl and mix in the plumped figs and cranberries with your hands. (You may want to use disposable latex gloves for this part.)
2) Line the pâté terrine or bread pan with the additional 1/2 pound of slab bacon, allowing the ends to drape over the sides of the pan. Mold the fruit and meat mixture into a log and press it into the terrine or pan. Gently whack the container on your countertop a few times to remove air pockets in the container. Fold the overhanging bacon onto the mixture, then top with the bay leaves. Cover the terrine with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil.
3) Make a bain-marie (a water bath): Bring a kettle or pot of water to a boil, then place the terrine in the center of a deep-sided roasting pan. Put the pan on the center rack of the preheated oven and pour boiling water into the roasting pan, so that the outside of the terrine is half-submirged. Don't let any water slosh over the sides and into your meat! Cook for 1 hour.
4) Remove the lid and take a look at your terrine: There should be some liquid fat that's accumulated from the cooking meats. Clear liquids indicate that your meat is sufficiently cooked through. If that's the case with yours, go ahead and carefully remove the terrine from the water bath and set it aside to cool, covered. Pour off the fat from the terrine and discard. Place the brick on top of the uncovered terrine and let it compact down overnight in the refrigerator. Bring the terrine to room temperature and slice into 1/2 inch servings.
Butternut Squash Soup with Cranberry Swirl
The festive appearance of this golden soup with its brilliant red swirl of cranberry purée sets off any holiday table. Guests are greeted by it for their first course. Topped with a sprig of basil, it truly seems seasonal.
3 pounds of butternut or other hard autumn squash
8 tablespoons of butter
3 large onions, peeled and diced
4 medium Idaho potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and diced
3 quarts good quality beef or chicken stock (you can use good quality bouillon, too)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
sea salt to taste
cayenne pepper to taste
cranberry swirl for garnish
1) Preheat the oven to oven 350°. Prick the squash with a sharp knife and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Bake until tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and cool. Peel skin and remove seeds. Cut into chucks and set aside.
2) Melt butter over medium heat in a Dutch oven or heavy, enameled pot. Add the onions and sweat until translucent. Stir in the potatoes and cover with stock. Bring to a boil and add the reserved squash. Reduce to a simmer and cook the soup until the potatoes are soft. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
3) Purée with an immersion blender until smooth. Combine with the heavy cream. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and cayenne as needed. Laddle the soup into individual bowls and finish by gently swirling a dollop of cranberry purée into the soup. Garnish with a fresh sprig of basil in the center.
Spiced Cranberry Swirl
Keep this brilliant red syrup in a squeeze bottle in the refrigerator to add a splash of holiday color to everything from a colorful soup to a simple grilled chicken breast.
Makes about 2 cups
12 ounces of fresh cranberries
water to cover
1 cup sugar
1 3-inch stick of cinnamon
4 whole cloves
1) Place all of the ingredients in a heavy non-reactive pan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat.
2) Simmer until the all the cranberries have burst and the mixture is reduced to about 2 cups. The pectin in the cranberries should make the mixture quite syrupy by this point. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
3) Remove the cinnamon stick and purée the cranberry sauce until smooth. Pass the purée through a sieve to remove any remaining seeds or skins.
4) Spoon the cranberry syrup into a plastic squeeze bottle (a thoroughly-rinsed ketchup bottle would work nicely) and store in the refrigerator.