Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Autumn Berry

Throughout the summer we have enjoyed a variety of boldly colored berries.  A perfect summer dessert is the berry fruit salad, comprised of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, topped with a dollop of mascarpone whipped cream.  With summer's conclusion, we no longer find those luscious jewels in the farm stand baskets.  Oh, but if we are patient for just another month, what's this?  What's this I spy in the produce department?  Ah yes, autumn has officially arrived, signaled by the grand entrance of the cranberry.  Typically sold pre-packaged in twelve-ounce plastic bags, these ruby-red little gems rich in vitamin C are what spurn the imagination into sprinkling the perfect finish over salads and sides, baking simultaneously sweet and tart desserts and preparing a creative accompanying condiment for the Thanksgiving turkey.

Cranberries grow wild in northern bogs of North America.  They are also cultivated in Washington state, Oregon, Wisconsin,Massachusetts, New Jersey and on Long Island. Yes, Long Island.  In fact, at one time Suffolk County was the third largest producer of cranberries in the United States.  There are several cranberry bogs along the Walking Dunes of Montauk.  The East Hampton Trails Preservation Society leads hikes along the bogs of Napeague throughout November.  Cranberries are harvested between Labor Day and Halloween, hitting the markets for their peak marketing season in October through December.   Cranberries release more sugar after the first frost, thus providing us with sweeter berries.

Just in time for fall baking projects, they are used in dessert breads, cobblers and pies.  Many baking recipes call for a secondary fruit, such as apples or pears, whose sweetness provides the perfect counterpoint to the cranberry's tart bite.  Cranberry-orange-pecan bread is a seasonal favorite in my family.  Every fall I also joyously extract baked cranberry-walnut clafoutis and cranberry-white chocolate bars from the oven.

Dried cranberries are widely available throughout the year, and make a nice addition to your fall salads.  They also add a nice pop of color and flavor when tossed with prepared vegetables and sides, such as roasted butternut squash or sweet potatoes, or with steamed brussels sprouts.  They may also be used in baked goods in place of raisins for a bit of scarlet autumn dazzle.

As the Thanksgiving holiday begins its rapid approach, no turkey feast is complete without the requisite cranberry sauce.  It so happens that November 22nd is in fact National Cranberry Sauce Day.  At some point in our lives we have all seen the ubiquitous canned cranberry sauce.  These cans are stacked in twelve-foot walls every November in every supermarket and put on sale at ridiculously low prices.  When opened, the contents must be extruded from these cylindrical containers.  Just as it is about to strike the awaiting serving dish, it threatens to bounce off of the rim and roll off of the counter, either onto the floor where it will bounce some more or into the eager dog's open-in-waiting jowls.  Even at a cursory glance, deep indents from the grooves of the can are observed encircling this gelatinous glob.  My point?  This is one perfect example of canned good which is never an acceptable substitute for homemade cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving table.  Make your own, it really is just as easy.

Cranberry sauce requires little more than depositing some cranberries into a pot with some liquid and sugar, adding a few spices and simmering the ingredients until most of the cranberries have popped.  That's it, voila, cranberry sauce.  Did you blink?  Then you probably missed it.  You can be as creative as you like, by changing up the spices used, adding flavor enhancements of liqueur, or adding some additional sweet or savory ingredients such as a second fruit or some chopped shallots, for instance.  It all depends on which flavor sensation your taste buds tend to gravitate toward, whether your have a sweet tooth like myself, or if you like to tease your palate with a peppery spice.  Anything goes, I have seen recipes that call not only for the typical fall baking spices, but also for cardamom or even cayenne pepper.  If it's heat you crave, the addition of a little jalepeno jelly might do the trick perfectly.  If you begin creating a new cranberry sauce recipe each year, you can easily come up with a new combination every year for the rest of your life.  Conversely, you just might churn out one combination that, upon sampling a taste just spooned from the pot, completely blows you away; and the result of this impromptu culinary experiment becomes the new tradition for every Thanksgiving thereafter.  This is exactly what I experienced four years ago, and now my citrus cranberry sauce with port is an annual tradition; why mess with perfection, right?

Citrus-Cranberry Sauce with Port (6 servings)
1 cup sugar
½ cup ruby Port
½ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons Cointreau
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces fresh cranberries
2 oranges, peeled and cut into chunks

Stir the sugar, Port, orange juice and Cointreau in a pot over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves.  Stir in ground cinnamon.  Bring mixture to a boil.  Stir in cranberries, reduce heat and simmer until about three-quarters of the cranberries have popped, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Stir in orange chunks.  Can be served immediately; or can be made up to one week ahead, store in a tight container in the refrigerator.

If you want to change things up in this recipe, try substituting six dried figs, each cut into quarters, instead of the oranges.  What to do with leftover cranberry sauce?  It makes an excellent topper for roasting meats or fish.  Spoon a layer over pork chops or salmon fillets and then roast, you'll have a simple weekday entree that's packed with flavor.  You can even doctor your leftover cranberry sauce by adding some savory ingredients, such as sauteed chopped shallots, a spoonful of dijon mustard or some fresh thyme or rosemary.

Once you set out a winning cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving table, and realize how quick and effortless it was to prepare, you will never look a can of cranberry sauce in the eye again.  Let them remain in the supermarket's warehouses, continuing to collect dust. If you already purchased a can, well perhaps it will serve you well as the occasional doorstop or paperweight.  Thanksgiving dinner is about bounty and harvest, which usually invokes images of freshly gathered vegetables and fruits, thus the embossed prints of filled cornucopias which grace many a Thanksgiving greeting card.  Maintain that imagery throughout your holiday meal by using only fresh ingredients, including that gorgeous crimson jewel, the cranberry.

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