Cranberries kick the can

The fall fruit no longer appears only as jellied sauce in a can. It now stars in soups, cereals, and more.

To all politicians running for office in the next election, here's some free advice: Grab, hire, lure, shanghai whoever has been running the public-relations campaign for cranberries in the United States during the past few decades.

Had actor Gary Coleman hired those cranberry PR folks, he'd be governor of California.

Why? Look around your supermarket. Cranberries are everywhere, in everything: breakfast cereals, ice cream, sparkling water, jams and jellies, candy bars, pies, cold soups, chutneys, granola, muffins. There's even a cranberry ketchup. And juice. Especially juice. And not just plain cranberry juice. It's getting more difficult to find a juice that doesn't have cranberries - Cranapple, Cranraspberry, Crangrape. In fact, today most cranberries go into juice production. Not surprising. It takes about 4,400 berries to produce every gallon of cranberry juice.

A more recent introduction to the growing cranberry market are white cranberries. The variety is harvested a few weeks earlier than its more colorful cousin, and is used primarily in white cranberry juice, where it is blended with white grape juice. (The juice is rather insipid and lacks the traditional snap of the red.)

It wasn't long ago that cranberries made a once-a-year cameo appearance at Thanksgiving, usually in the form of canned cranberry jell. That red, slimy blob with ribs squiggled so much that it appeared to have a life of its own.

Although it was clearly the most colorful addition to my family's dinner table, it was in the shadow of Mother's roast turkey, the sweet-potato casserole (don't forget the minimarshmallows), and Grandmother's frozen string-bean casserole (smothered with canned onion rings).

Today, among cooks of more sophistication, Thanksgiving dinner might include a multidimensional cranberry chutney (see recipe) or relish. Or cranberries might appear in any number of desserts. Indeed, they are also a tangy condiment and a perfect accompaniment to pork, poultry, and game.

Cranberries were once referred to as "bounce berries," as ripe fruit should bounce like a Ping-Pong ball; and as "crane berries," since the pale pink blossoms were thought to resemble the beaks of cranes, which can often be seen feeding in bogs where the scarlet berries grow.

The bitter berries are one of few fruits that can't be eaten out of hand because of their extreme tartness. They must be sweetened to make them palatable.

Native Americans, who introduced them to the early settlers, would boil them with maple syrup and maybe just a tad of bear fat, or mash them with deer meat. They also used the juice to dye clothing, blankets, and rugs.

Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, has always had a corner of the cranberry market. Other major crops are grown in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon.

Cranberries are also one of just a handful of fruits native to North America, along with blueberries and Concord grapes.

A common misconception is that cranberries are grown in water. They are usually grown in moors and sandy bogs. In autumn, when the fruit ripens, the bogs are flooded and the berries are raked from their vines and float to the surface, where they are easily harvested.

Sweetened dried cranberries are readily available today, and can replace raisins or currants in any baked goods. Before making a recipe with fresh cranberries, sort through them, and remove those that are white, soft, or bruised. They should be firm or "bounceable" and as lustrous as a pigeon-blood ruby. Raw cranberries are usually sold in 12-ounce plastic bags and may be frozen indefinitely in the unopened bag.

A final word for Gary Coleman: Gary, big guy, you may have come up a little short in the California gubernatorial election, but get in touch with one of those cranberry PR folks. After all, there's always the White House in 2004.

Curried Cranberry-Apple Chutney

1-1/2 cups cranberries, picked through and halved
2 large Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut into medium dice
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1-1/2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in a heavy, medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, stir occasionally, and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are mushy. Cool before serving.

The chutney can be packed in jars or plastic containers and refrigerated for up to a month.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

This is a simple, unusual topping for ice cream, or a dessert by itself when topped with sweetened whipped cream. The cookie sheet should be one with a lip at the edges, so the cranberries won't roll off.

Candied Cranberries

Butter for greasing cookie sheet
1 (12-ounce) package of cranberries, washed, dried, and picked over
2-1/4 cups sugar
Ice cream or whipped cream

Butter cookie sheet and spread with cranberries. Sprinkle berries with sugar and let stand about 1 hour. Toward the end of that time, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover berries loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool and serve with sweetened whipped cream or vanilla or chocolate ice cream.

Makes 1-1/2 cups.

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