Stringing's just for starters. Ruby red cranberries are one of the season's most versatile foods

EARLY memory of the weeks before Christmas: cousins sitting cross-legged by the fire, stringing yards and yards of popcorn and cranberries on tough button thread. They carefully alternate the red with the white. This is one of popcorn's best uses, besides accompanying one's movie watching. But with cranberries, stringing is just for starters. Besides making one of America's most popular juices, cranberries are boiled, baked, roasted, steamed, crystallized, and sugared - and eaten with everything from turkey and pork to sweet potatoes.

Cranberries were one of the Indians' first food gifts to the early settlers. But long before the Pilgrims came in 1620, the North American Indians combined crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat to make pemmican, a ``convenience food'' that would keep for a long time.

Indian women had long used cranberry juice as a dye for their rugs and blankets. Cranberries were known by a variety of names among the Indians - ibimi, meaning bitter berry, atuqua, or sassamanesh. To the Delaware Indians of New Jersey, cranberries were a symbol of peace. But it was the Pilgrims who gave the cranberry its present name. They thought the pink blossoms of the plant resembled the head of a crane, and so they called it a ``crane-berry,'' which was later contracted to cranberry.

Because of the cheerful ruby red of the cranberry, it is a perfect aesthetic accompaniment to turkey, goose, or roast beef, but cranberries can also figure in holiday meals from early morning to a late-night snack. Scalloped Sweets and Cranberries 6 sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled, and sliced lengthwise 1 1/2 cups whole cranberry sauce (homemade preferably, but canned will do) 3/4 cup water 1/2 cup brown sugar 3/4 teaspoon grated orange rind 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place sweet potato slices in greased 2-quart casserole. Combine cranberry sauce, water, brown sugar, orange rind, and cinnamon in saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 min. Add butter and pour over potatoes. Bake 20 min.

They are crustier when you bake them in cast-iron gem pans, but muffin tins will do. Cape Cod Cranberry Gems 1/2 cup butter or margarine 1/2 cup sugar 1 cup raw cranberries, chopped fine 1 egg, beaten 2 teaspoons baking powder 2 cups sifted flour 1 1/2 teaspoons salt Milk or water to make thick batter

Cream butter with sugar. Add cranberries, then beaten egg. Sift together baking powder, flour, and salt. Combine the two mixtures smoothly and stir in milk or water. Fill spaces in greased, preheated gem pans, two-thirds full. Bake brown in 400-degree F. oven 20 to 30 min. Makes 1 dozen gems. Quick Christmas Cranberry Bread 1/4 cup butter 1 cup honey 2 eggs 1 cup orange juice 2 cups whole wheat flour 1/4 cup milk powder 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup chopped nuts 2 cups fresh whole cranberries

Cream butter and honey, beat in eggs and orange juice. In separate bowl, stir together all dry ingredients (but not the cranberries). Add them gradually to liquid mixture. Gently fold in cranberries. Turn batter into an oiled and floured loaf pan. Bake at 325 degrees F. for a little over an hour.

This next recipe is from a charming little book called ``Country Fare, Reminiscences and Recipes from a Maine Childhood,'' by Esther Wood. Holiday Pie 2 1/2 cups chopped cranberries 1 1/2 cups chopped raisins 1 1/2 cups sugar 3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca 3 tablespoons water Pastry for 2-crust, 9-inch pie

Combine the 5 ingredients for pie filling, and let stand while you make the pastry. Fill unbaked crust with mixture. Cut remaining dough into strips and arrange lattice fashion on top. Bake in a 425 degree F. oven 35 to 40 min.

Two kinds of cranberries grow in Alaska: the high bush and the low. They are used interchangeably in this recipe, which is served frequently with game of all kinds, beef, pork, lamb, and, of course, turkey. Alaskan Cranberry Ketchup 4 cups fresh cranberries 2 cups finely chopped onions 4 cups sugar 2 cups white vinegar 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon ground allspice 1 tablespoon celery seed 2 teaspoons ground cloves 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In 3-quart Dutch oven, combine cranberries, onions and 2 cups water. Bring to boiling. Cover and simmer till berries are easily mashed, about 10 min. Pur'ee cranberry mixture in blender or push through sieve. In Dutch oven combine cranberry pur'ee, sugar, vinegar, seasonings, and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boiling. Boil gently 30 to 35 min., uncovered, until mixture is consistency of ketchup, stirring occasionally (ketchup will thicken on cooling). Remove from heat and skim off foam. Ladle into hot canning jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Adjust lids. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes (starting to time when water returns to boiling). Makes 2 pints.

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