What the pumpkin is to Halloween, the cranberry is to Thanksgiving. It’s hard to think of a fruit more seasonal—many people never consider the cranberry apart from the jellied relish on their holiday table. Amateur and professional chefs alike often shy away from its sharp, potentially overwhelming taste. But the tart, resilient berry provides an unmistakable flavor that emerges in any number of culinary preparations.
Cultivated in vast bogs throughout the northern United States and Canada, cranberries grow on ground-hugging shrubs, usually in wetlands. In the fall, their dramatic harvest takes place. Nearly 95% of all cranberries are wet-picked: the berry fields are completely flooded, and a harvester is driven through to shake the fruit from the vine; the berries then float to the surface for collection. The result is a sea of red, often stretching over many acres, before the cranberries are gathered and sold.
Most common cranberry preparations mask the fruit with sugar, in order to tame its strong flavor: virtually all cranberry juice is heavily sweetened, Thanksgiving-style relishes contain very little fruit, and baked goods often rely on dried cranberries, already laden with sugar. However, cranberries lend themselves to savory preparations, as well. Cambridge chef Tony Maws, as cited in the New York Times
, tempers the berry’s tartness with fat, rather than sugar; he uses duck fat in his cranberry relish. Simply cooking down the berries can soften the flavor enough to produce a suitably mellow compote. Another Cambridge chef, Tom Berry of Bambara Restaurant, harnesses their strong flavor to bright a fall chicken stew. And when shaved thinly—very thinly—the raw berries can add life to a salad, balanced by a sweet fruit or creamy cheese.
Cranberries may conjure up images of tin-can jelly. But some associations were made to be broken.