Despite the traditional holiday season, cranberries don’t have to end up swimming in sugar or girded by gelatin.
While the ubiquitous canned product — and Aunt Addie’s cranberry and cream cheese mold — will likely be around until the end of time, a little creativity can recast the versatile super fruit. Labeled as such for its high nutrient and antioxidant properties, the small red berry can be the tart star of your family’s breakfast, lunch or dinner.
If fragrant breads, pancakes, sorbets, soups and meat glazes made with cranberries aren’t enough to tempt you at this time of year, how about the intrinsic health benefits of this tiny gem, such as fostering cancer prevention and lowering high cholesterol, as well as the risk of inflammation?
The documented use of wild cranberries dates back many hundreds of years, with Native Americans employing them in medicine, to heal wounds, and as a staple in foods like pemmican, a combination of crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. Pervasive in North America and harvested in autumn, many accounts mention Native Americans teaching the pilgrims to use cranberries, helping them stem the tide of starvation experienced during their first winters on unfamiliar soil. Cranberries, brimming with vitamins A and C, were also loaded for consumption into barrels of water on whaling ships to prevent scurvy during long sea journeys.
In his role as director of market development for the Maine Department of Agriculture, John Harker, cranberry grower himself and owner, with wife Debra Parry, of Mt. Vernon-based Cranberry Creations, is no stranger to the fruit’s potent properties.
The business is a source of individual cranberry plants for home gardeners who wish to cultivate a few plants of their own, which Harker says is easy and yields healthful results. Meanwhile, at home the Harkers use their fresh cranberries, coarse chopped and raw, on cereal, granola and in yogurt, and especially steamed to make a potent juice.
“Some of the cranberry products you see in the stores have sugar (or high fructose corn syrup and other additives) in them,” Harker said, noting bottled juice is among them. A healthier alternative, he said, is to steam fresh berries in a colander over boiling water and strain them through cheesecloth to extract all the juice, or use a Meju-Maija — a special steam juicer obtainable online. Harker noted that health benefits from such 100-percent juices are abundant.
Harker said research shows that individuals ingesting products with as little as 25 percent cranberry juice can reap health benefits for conditions such as urinary tract infections. He said you can cut tart and dense 100 percent cranberry juice with water, and add sugar only if you decide it's necessary. “This way you have control over your own health,” he said.
For Lewiston’s Ware Street Inn owner and cook Jan Barrett, working creatively with cranberries is one of the things that distinguishes the inn’s breakfasts and other dishes at this time of year. Barrett, who is also owner and proprietor of Ware Street Inn Catering, promotes the use of cranberries in her special cranberry oatmeal pancakes, pumpkin cranberry bread, banana cranberry bread, pumpkin French toast with caramel cranberry sauce, berry syrup (for pancakes, ice cream, oatmeal, etc.) and to ratchet up a white sauce she uses on pork. She even drops the burgundy berries into sparkling glasses of champagne.
“I mostly cook with fresh cranberries,” she said, “but in some of the items I do use whole cranberry sauce (made with added sugar),” depending on a tart or sweet objective.
For Paul Levesque, chef/owner of The Sedgley Place in Greene, whose five-course meals feature abundant produce from his and wife Suzanne’s 77-acre organic farm and greenhouses in Leeds, selecting the ripest cranberries is paramount in flavorful cooking.
“The reddest ones are the sweetest,” he said, noting they contain the most natural sugar. The berries are supplied by Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, and featured in Sedgley Place’s muffins, cakes, breads, stuffed mushrooms and cranberry apple stuffing. Levesque said he only uses cranberries when he can obtain them fresh, as he did recently when he created a special sorbet for one of the establishment’s wine tasting events.
Said Ware Street Inn’s Jan Barrett, “They’re good for you, they’re abundant at this time of year and they’re not terribly expensive. You can do a million things with them and they really taste great.”
Sedgley Place's Fresh Cranberry & Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms with Cranberry Puree
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup fresh cranberries, chopped
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 cup cooked arborio rice
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup finely cubed pepperjack cheese
1/2 pound sweet sausage (Sedgley makes its own; you can too, or purchase at the store)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
8-10 large mushrooms
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Heat oil in a large saute pan and add shallots, cook for 2 minutes. Add sausage and cook completely, about 8 minutes, stirring often. Add herbs, rice, quinoa, sugar, scallions and cranberries. Stir and add chicken stock, cover. Cook on medium heat for about 4 minutes or until cranberries start to get soft. Remove from heat and pour mixture into a large bowl. Add the cheese, salt and pepper to taste and stir. Fill mushrooms using a tablespoon and place on a sheet pan that has been treated with olive oil. Bake for 15 minutes or until mushrooms are soft. Transfer to a serving platter and enjoy.
To make a vegetarian stuffing, omit sausage and chicken stock, increase rice by 1/2 a cup and use vegetable stock in place of chicken stock.
1/2 pound ground pork
2 cloves of garlic, peeled & chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
Add all ingredients together in a large bowl and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 1 hour. Ready to use.
3 cups fresh cranberries
1/4 cup water
2 cups sugar
Fresh lemon juice (1/4 lemon)
Place cranberries in saucepan with water, cook over low heat until cranberries are soft (about 5 minutes). Place cranberries in blender and puree until it is a smooth thick liquid. Place mixture back into saucepan and simmer for about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the sugar and cook on medium heat to dissolve it (the mixture will turn completely liquid). Turn the heat up and bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly; boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and squeeze the juice of 1/4 lemon directly into puree, mix completely. Allow to cool to room temperature. Drizzle your stuffed mushrooms with the puree.
Ware Street Inn’s Berry Syrup
1 large can whole cranberry sauce (or 1 large can jellied cranberry sauce and 1 pint of fresh cranberries)
1 pint cranberry juice
1 cup fresh or frozen Maine blueberries
Empty can of whole cranberry sauce into a medium-sized pan. Break up sauce with a potato masher or whisk until the mixture is somewhat smooth. Add cranberry juice and blueberries. Mix well. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to lowest temperature and let simmer, again stirring occasionally to allow mixture to reduce and thicken. Slip a heat diffuser* between the pan and burner if mixture begins to stick. Reduce to desired thickness; remove pan from heat and allow to cool before refrigerating.
Heat before serving with pancakes or French toast, etc.
* A heat diffuser is a utensil available in kitchen supply stores and online designed to distribute heat evenly across the bottom of a pan.
The Cranberry Institute, at www.cranberryinstitute.org, provides extensive health, history and harvest information for growers and consumers.