It occurred to me, as I sat at our Thanksgiving table looking at the usual bowl of cranberry sauce, that cranberries are probably one of our most underestimated fruits. Most of us, I suspect, only think of cranberries during these holiday weeks, and that’s a big mistake.
We’ve been told often enough in the past few years about the health benefits of eating at least five helpings of fruit every day, but until two or so years ago, cranberries were way down on my favorite fruit list. As I said, I thought of them primarily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, not a year ‘round habit, until a health food addict cousin sent me an article about recent cranberry research. It was an eye-opener.
I’d known for many years all the lore about women drinking cranberry juice to combat UTI’s (urinary tract infections), but it turns out that cranberries can do so much more for us if we’d give them the attention they deserve. Without going into all the long names of all the phytonutrients contained in these little red gems, here are some, but probably not all, of the things cranberries can do for you.
Improve cardio-vascular health; lower LDL (bad) cholesterol level and raise HDL (good) levels; fight inflammation throughout the body; lower the risk of periodontal disease (yes, they can help your gums); aid in gastrointestinal health; and, most recently, they’ve been proven to be cancer fighters, including breast, colon, lung and prostrate cancer. In addition, they’re low cal, hi-fiber, with lots of Vitamin C and manganese. What’s not to love about a berry with all of that going for it?
It should be noted here, however, that those big bottles of “cranberry juice cocktail” are not what we’re talking about here. It’s the whole berry that does all of the fine work mentioned above, as many of those phytonutrients are contained in the skin of the berry itself. And yes, they’re too tart to just pop in your mouth as a snack or breakfast fruit; one of the problems with cranberries is that we tend to use too much sugar to make them edible, but we can change that with a little imagination and good intentions.
Dried cranberries, for example, are readily available and have all the health benefits noted above. I’m never without them in my pantry, and throw them into breakfast cereals, oatmeal, muffins, on salads, cook them with green beans to make my least favorite vegetable edible, mix them with nuts for snacking, and so forth. And cranberry juice is also on the OK list, but you have to be sure to read the label and ascertain that the juice is “unsweetened whole berry juice.”
Fresh cranberry season is short, usually only from October through December, but fortunately, cranberries can be kept frozen for up to several years. Spread them on a cookie sheet, two to three hours in the freezer, then package them in airtight freezer bags (be sure to date them) and keep a dozen or so handy in the freezer for a year ‘round health boost.
So please, take a fresh look at this powerhouse of the fruit world, and make cranberries part of your weekly food menu all year ‘round.
NOTE: Anyone taking warfarin (coumadin) or other blood thinner should consult their doctor before going big with the cranberries; they can change the effect of the medication.
RECIPES: As I said, adding fresh whole cranberries to your menu takes only some imagination. For example, if you usually make a traditional Waldorf salad as part of your Christmas meal, try adding some fresh whole or coarsely chopped cranberries to the salad. Their tart flavor will complement the other components. The same can be done for a salad of mixed greens; add the cranberries and then add just a touch more sweetness to your dressing. OK, let’s begin with a side dish that’s a beautiful accompaniment to your Christmas goose, ham, turkey or lamb.
CRANBERRIED ACORN SQUASH
2 acorn squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
3 T. unsalted butter
3 T. dark brown sugar
3 T. orange marmalade
¾ cup fresh cranberries (or thawed, if frozen), picked over and coarsely chopped
In a buttered baking dish, bake the squash cut side down in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 min. (squash will still be firm). In a small stainless steel or enameled saucepan, (aluminum will darken), melt the butter over med. low heat; stir in the sugar, marmalade and cranberries and remove pan from the heat.
Turn squash cut side up, sprinkle lightly with salt to taste and divide the cranberry mixture among them. Bake squash another 20 min., or until tender. Transfer to a heated serving dish. Serves 4; is easily doubled.
And for your holiday punch bowl?
HOT BUTTERED CRANBERRY CIDER
4 cups cranberry juice (remember, unsweetened whole berry juice)
4 cups apple cider
1 cinnamon stick (about 3-inch)
1 cup dark rum (or liquor of your choice, if you don’t like rum; perhaps Marsala)
2 T. honey (or to taste)
¾ stick unsalted butter, cut into bits
In a stainless steel or enameled saucepan, combine the cranberry juice, cider, cinnamon stick; bring to a boil and simmer for 10 min. Remove from heat, stir in the rum, honey, and butter; stir mixture until the butter is melted. Ladle cider into heated mugs. Serves 8-10.
Let there be, please, at least one cranberry dessert on the holiday table, but this one would be delicious any time of the year. It’s a very old recipe, but it will almost certainly be something new to most of those you serve this to.
CRANBERRY PEAR CRISP
For the topping: ½ cup granulated sugar and ¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¾ cup flour
1 ½ t. ground coriander
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
½ cup plus 1 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
For the filling:
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ cup fresh cranberries, picked over (or frozen, thawed)
2 ½ T. flour
1 t. ground coriander
¼ cup pear nectar, or unsweetened, whole berry cranberry juice
1 ½ lbs. firm ripe pears, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
To make the topping: In a food processor (or large bowl), blend together the granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, coriander and the pecans. Add the butter and pulse or blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal.
To make the filling: In a large kettle stir together the sugar, cranberries, flour, coriander and pear nectar; cook over med.-high heat, stirring frequently, for 10-12 min. or until thickened and the cranberries have burst. Stir in the pears.
Pour the filling into an ungreased 2-quart casserole, or a 9×13 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the topping and bake the crisp in the middle of a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 min., or until golden and bubbling. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 8-10.