What it is: A small, hard, tart, oval, red berry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, a relative of the blueberry.
Where it comes from: Native to North America, cranberries were introduced to the Pilgrims by Native Americans and are thought to have been served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Early settlers dubbed them “crane berries” after the Sandhill crane, because the flowers resemble the bird’s head and bill. The berries grow on long vines in sandy bogs that the cranes frequent.
Commercial cultivation of the fruit began in the 19th century. Today, Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, followed by Massachusetts.
Trivia: In 1959, the nation’s cranberry crop was found to be tainted with the herbicide aminotriazole. The resulting scandal was even the subject of a pop song, “Cranberry Blues” by Robert Williams and the Groovers.
What to do with it: Many people think of cranberries only as a condiment for Thanksgiving turkey or a juice in their Cosmopolitans. But the versatile fruit — available fresh, frozen and dried, as well as in juice and jellied form — can be used to add tartness to all sorts of baked goods and savory dishes like soups and stew. Chef Patrick Quakenbush of Zed451 in River North makes them into borscht.
Most recipes for cranberries tame their intensely tart flavor by cooking an combining with sugar and other ingredients. Raw cranberries are sometimes made into a relish.
Harvested in September and October, fresh cranberries are typically sold packaged in bags holding 3 cups of berries. Look for bright, intensely colored fruit. Unopened bags of cranberries will keep in the refrigerator for up to two months. For longer storage, toss in the freezer, where they’ll keep till next Thanksgiving. Stock up around this time of year, because while cranberries are usually available frozen year round, they can be hard to find and expensive in the summer months. Frozen cranberries can be used in most dishes just as you would the fresh fruit.
Zed451’s carrot and cranberry borscht
Chef Patrick Quakenbush
1 pound carrots, chopped
2 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
In a medium, nonreactive saucepan, simmer the carrots, cranberries, stock and sugar until the carrots are very tender, about 20 minutes.
Puree in a blender or food processor mixture and return the to pan. Add the lemon juice. Whisk in sour cream until well blended. Serve hot, garnished with the dill. 6 to 8 servings.