Kitchen Shrink: Cranberries, the tart little darling of fall

Those bright ruby wax-like balls herald the holiday season as they dominate the supermarket produce aisles. The quintessential fruit of fall, this tart little gem transports me back to my childhood in Canada, where our family would go cranberry picking in the Muskoka bog.

The first time I clutched the crimson berry in my palm and popped it in my mouth, my brain couldn’t believe what my tongue was telling me. It was so tart it didn’t even make it down my throat.

Today, I appreciate this super food, a cousin to the blueberry and one of the few fruits on the planet native to North America. While most holiday tables abound with cranberry dishes, learn to relish the mighty cranberry all year. Here’s why.

Benefits of the Bog Berry

This petite-yet-potent powerhouse was recognized by Native Americans as a healing food well before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. They concocted deer meat and mashed cranberries to form pemmican as a staple food throughout the long winters, and also used the berry as an antibacterial poultice to soothe and treat arrow wounds.

The low cal, fiber-rich cranberry is rife with Vitamins A for ocular health, B to put the skids on stress, immune-boosting C and blood-regulating K. It’s also packed with fortifying minerals (manganese and copper), and a rich source of antioxidants, especially proanthocyanidins with anti-adhesion properties making cranberry a urinary tract’s best friend.

By preventing bacteria from glomming onto urinary tract linings, cranberries knock infections off their feet. Drink unsweetened cranberry juice straight up to pack the best anti-bacterial punch when symptoms loom.

Other phytonutrients provide anti-inflammatory properties, particularly for mouth and gums, (to ward off periodontal disease), the colon and stomach, linked to preventing ulcers, and the cardio system (lowering blood pressure, along with the “bad” cholesterol while raising the “good”).

Studies have shown cranberry as an anti-carcinogenic warrior in its preventive role against breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers.

One word of cranberry warning: Those susceptible to kidney stones, check with the doc before cranberrying up.

Pick winners

Make sure the berries are firm, perfect spheres — not shriveled or dented — and have a bright scarlet hue without brown spots. Cranberries can keep in their original package in the fridge for up to two weeks, the freezer for one year. Rinse berries in cold water, filtering out stems and pale, brown or mushy ones. Frozen cranberries don’t have to be defrosted before prepping.

Let’s get saucy

A traditional holiday table would be naked without cranberry relish or sauce accompanying the turkey or fowl of choice. Why not expand your cranberry horizons during the holidays and beyond by adding eye candy, zip and an antioxidant oomph with fresh or dried nuggets in biscottis, scones, corn breads, cobblers, granolas, English trifles, French clafoutis, rice puddings and flans. There’s more. Dial up briskets, baked chicken, lamb roasts and grilled wild-caught salmon, stuffings, quinoa and bulgur wheat taboulis, pilafs and green salads. Finally, whet your whistle with a cranberry vodka punch, cranberry martinis, cosmopolitans or margaritas. Cheers!

A cranberry walks into a (side) bar

• Athletic cranberries contain air pockets giving them the ability to not only float, but also bounce.

• While some Native American tribes invented the moniker “ibimi” translating to “bitter berry,” it was the German and Dutch settlers who contrived the name “crane berry” as the blossom of the fruit resembled the head, bill and neck of the crane bird.

• It’s a myth (perpetuated by Ocean Spray commercials) that cranberries sprout in water. Rather these perennial plants grow in low-lying vines or bushes in sandy bogs and marshes.

• The American love affair with cranberry sauce began in 1912 when it was first marketed. Today we scarf down over 400 million pounds of the stuff a year, 20 percent during Thanksgiving week, especially the jellied variety. In fact, 94 percent of Thanksgiving dinners serve cranberry sauce.

• Food folklorists believe that cranberries were served at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth.

• Cranberries are composed of nearly 90 percent water.

Refreshing Raw Relish

Ingredients

1 pound fresh cranberries, washed, stems removed

2 oranges or mandarins, peeled and chopped

1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, shredded

1/2 cup amber honey (adjust to taste)

1/2 cup dark brown sugar (adjust to taste)

Zest from one Meyer lemon

Method: In a food processor or blender, coarsely chop cranberries and oranges. Transfer to a glass bowl and blend in remaining ingredients. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

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