Story and Photography by Mary Haymaker
I have a secret to tell you about Thanksgiving: I could happily give up the turkey. Even the ham steeped in cola, which I do every year, isn’t mandatory. For me, Thanksgiving is about the side dishes…the mashed potatoes, dressing, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce.
My family doesn’t really care too much for cranberry sauce, and that’s okay with me. More for me, right? I always store it in a Mason jar, and I’ll gladly eat it straight from the jar with a spoon, but I also like to make salad dressing with it, use it to top ice cream, and put it in turkey sandwiches.
I grew up eating my grandmother’s cranberry relish every Thanksgiving. Basically, it was just cranberries, sugar and orange zest. While I didn’t hate it, I secretly longed for the more standard cranberry sauce. You know the type: It comes from a can, telltale rings still visible, and you slice it. The horror! You can imagine my delight when I learned how to make my own whole berry, jellied cranberry sauce: pure cranberry heaven.
Native to the United States, cranberries are one of the few traditional Thanksgiving foods that actually might have been on the first Thanksgiving table. According to history.com, by the time the Pilgrims showed up in the New World, Native Americans had long been eating the tart berries – and using them as a dye for clothing. However, cranberry sauce wouldn’t have been on the menu, as the sugar that was brought over on the Mayflower had been depleted. Interestingly enough, cranberry sauce is also popular in the United Kingdom, but they tend to leave the tart character of the berries in the forefront—using less sugar than we do here.
The cranberry is an interesting fruit. Cranberries are grown in large bogs in several of the cooler states of the US. It is a common misconception that they are grown in water—the water is not introduced into the bogs until harvest time. The beds are then flooded and the cranberries float to the top, aided by a pocket of air inside each berry. This allows them to be moved to a corner of the bed, where they are more easily pumped out of the bog.
I am sure that it will come as no surprise—based on when we see cranberries turning up in our grocery stores and on our tables—that the cranberry harvest takes place in autumn, starting in September. I find it impossible to find cranberries in any form but canned in my grocery store until October, when I begin throwing a bag in my cart on each weekly trip to the grocery store, which then goes into my deep-freeze so I can enjoy cranberries any time of the year. I’ve heard tales that frozen cranberries can be found in some grocery stores virtually year ‘round, but I’ve yet to find them in my neck of the woods.
The high pectin level in cranberries makes them a perfect candidate for turning into jellies and sauces. Unlike blueberries and strawberries, cranberries have an extraordinarily high amount of pectin, which causes them to quickly and thoroughly thicken when cooked. As the sauce heats, the berries will pop and then break down into a thick, gelatinous substance. In fact, cranberries go from whole berries to thick, jellied sauce in about 10 minutes—with no help whatsoever from additives such as commercial pectin or gelatin.
CLASSIC CRANBERRY SAUCE
No Thanksgiving spread is complete without a jewel-toned bowl of cranberry sauce. This is a classic, basic sauce with just a few ingredients. This recipe is from the book Thanksgiving by Sam Sifton.
MAKES 2-1/2 CUPS
- 1 12-ounce bag cranberries
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup orange juice – freshly squeezed (I use 2 large Navel oranges)
- zest of one orange
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the cranberries with the sugar and the orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture begins to simmer—4-6 minutes.
Stir in the orange zest. Continue to cook gently for 2-3 more minutes, stirring frequently, until the berries have popped and formed a thick gel.
Pour the sauce into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until completely chilled before serving.
Pecan: Stir 1/2 cup of toasted, chopped pecans into the finished sauce.
Ginger: Stir 1-2 teaspoons of finely minced, fresh ginger into the sauce along with the orange zest. Garnish with 1/4 cup of slivered, candied ginger, if desired.
Boozy: Substitute ruby Port for all or some of the orange juice. Omit the orange zest.