Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homemade cranberry sauce a simple task

Throughout my childhood, my mother made her own cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner. Everything else for that holiday feast, and for most of her dinners, she also cooked from scratch.

To my mother, the boring canned, aspic-like cranberry sauce, which I secretly liked back then, was worthy of the cafeteria steam-table. And we didn’t spend money in those days on “eating out.”

Mum made the classic whole-berry sauce, the one on the Ocean Spray package: boil one cup sugar, one cup water and one bag of berries until berries pop.

The recipe on the Ocean package remains the same. However, the bag that once held a pound of berries has shrunk over the years to contain a mere 12 ounces. Thus the proportions of sugar, water and cranberries in the classical sauce changed.

But no matter. I have edged beyond my mother’s formulas on many dishes, including cranberry sauce.

I typically slip in other ingredients and seasonings to heighten flavors and effects.

Cranberries are a modest, if widespread, woodland and marshland berry. Like their cousins the lingonberries (of Swedish and Ikea fame), cranberries are firm, sour crimson fruits from dwarf-growing bushes or swamp-growing vines indigenous to colder latitudes in North America and Europe.

They are distant relatives of blueberries and huckleberries.

Native peoples have gathered cranberries as food for centuries. In the wild, cranberries are a favorite of bears (how cool is that) but birds, squirrels and chipmunks also eat them.

The fruits are cultivated in watery bogs in a number of U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

As a teenager I saw cranberries growing nearly wild in a small wetland on an old Central Connecticut farm.

Native Americans combined unsweetened cranberries with venison to make their dried pemmican.

The fruits nowadays usually are prepared with sugar to balance their tart taste and mild tannic bitterness.

As sauce, cranberries accompany meats, particularly turkey. Thanksgiving turkey in North America and Christmas turkey in England virtually demand cranberry sauce. Similarly, in Scandinavia, lingonberry sauce traditionally enhances reindeer steak and Swedish meatballs.

Yet sauce is an infrequent use of cranberries, having long been overtaken by cranberry juice and dried, sweetened cranberries. The one-time specialty fruit now is big business.

In addition to their stimulating taste and iconic color, another quality has made cranberries popular in recent decades. The berries, like many red fruits, contain antioxidants, considered beneficial for health.

Here’s my recipe for the sauce. Despite the salt and horseradish, cranberry sauce left over from Thanksgiving dinner goes admirably into “jam” bars and onto Brie or cream cheese for the Christmas party appetizer table.

Make extra. It keeps for weeks in the fridge.

Whole Cranberry Sauce

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
1 orange, preferably organic
1 cup sugar
7⁄8 cup water
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

Pick over and rinse cranberries. Set aside to drain.

Rinse and dry orange. With vegetable peeler, cut strips of zest off half of the orange. Place strips in a stainless steel pot along with the juice squeezed from the orange.

Add sugar, water and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes.

Add berries and return to a boil, stirring occasionally. When most of the berries have popped (several minutes), remove from heat. Stir in horseradish.

Let cool. Remove orange zest strips.

The sauce is tastiest if allowed to age for at least a day, refrigerated. It will keep for weeks if stored cold.

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