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Relish the Cranberry

No Thanksgiving table would be complete without at least one dish containing the American classic, vaccinium macrocarpon, more commonly known as the cranberry. An iconic holiday staple, historians aren’t sure whether the cranberry graced the first Thanksgiving table in 1621. Since there were no photographs or written menus of that fabled feast, we can only assume that the tart red berry was there in some way, shape or form.

Native Americans likely introduced this brilliant red fruit to the Pilgrims. Not only prized as a culinary ingredient and preservative, cranberries were also used both as a natural dye and medicinally to prevent indigestion, heal arrow wounds and treat other maladies.

Wisconsin, followed by Massachusetts, leads the nation in cranberry production. Cranberries grow on low-running vines in sandy bogs and marshes. Because cranberries float, bogs appear flooded when the fruit is ready for harvesting. Machines resembling large lawnmowers, called water beaters, pluck the cranberries off their vines every fall.

Fresh cranberries require little advance preparation. Simply rinse and remove any stems; discard discolored or shriveled berries. Cranberries can range in color from light to dark ruby red. Fresh cranberries should be stored in a tightly sealed bag up to two months, or frozen in their bag up to one year. To use frozen berries, do not thaw. Just rinse with cold water and drain.

Cranberries add a tart burst to quick breads including muffins, pancakes and waffles. Stir some into homemade applesauce or toss into cobblers and crisps. It’s not necessary to cook cranberries. For a quick relish to spread on sandwiches, pour a 12-ounce bag of cranberries into a food processor with the knife blade attached. Add 2/3 cup sugar and pulse until coarsely chopped; refrigerate a few hours before serving. To prepare cranberry sauce, cook cranberries long enough so that most of the berries burst to release their natural pectin which thickens the sauce as it cools.

Cranberries aren’t just for eating. Fill a vase with cranberries for an instant decoration – they hold flowers in place with a festive flair. Or, float cranberries and candles in a shallow bowl for your centerpiece. Cranberries are only available in the fall through early winter, so remember to stock up and freeze several bags to enjoy throughout the year.