Two hundred years ago on Cape Cod, Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall harvested the world's first cultivated crop of cranberries. In the preceding years, he'd noticed that the wild cranberries in his Dennis, Massachusetts, bog grew larger where sand had blown on them. He began transplanting cranberry seedlings into prepped beds, covered in sand, and the North American cranberry industry was born. This year, world demand will top out at about 13 million barrels, with a 12-ounce bag of fresh berries costing about two bucks.
Before Hall's contribution, the tart fruit had been wild-harvested by Native Americans for more than 12,000 years, and the Pilgrims had been making cranberry sauce for centuries. Cranberries can rightfully claim to have graced the original Thanksgiving table. Regardless of when turkey entered the picture, the pairing of roast bird and cranberries was destiny. They make gastronomic poetry together, as one is rich and the other piercing. Though the cranberry industry has fought attempts by the USDA to label added sugars on foods — it argues that its product needs sweetening in order to taste good — I disagree. Cranberries can easily be prepared in ways that take advantage of their sour acidity.
The easiest way to deal with them on Thanksgiving is do whatever you were going to do, and add some fresh cranberries to it. Baking a bird in foil, old-school style? Add cranberries. Braising turkey in white wine with artichokes? Toss in a few handfuls. Firing up that turkey fryer? Make cranberry fritters.
I did the white wine braise the other day as a holiday rehearsal dish, using frozen turkey quarters, which I thawed overnight, browned on all sides under the broiler, then packed in a baking pot with a tight-fitting lid. I added carrots, celery, half an onion, two bay leaves, salt, garlic powder, and two cups of sauvignon blanc. After an hour at 350, I added the artichokes and a few handfuls of cranberries, which remained intact after another hour of cooking. They were juicy, tart, potent flavor bombs that infused the turkey with their intense redness.
Another interesting option, born of my attempts to make a turkey-cranberry version of Chinese-style orange chicken, is a cranberry sauce with orange, ginger and garlic. To make it, begin by washing the cranberries, picking out any bad ones or green foliage, and add them to a thick-bottomed pot. Cut a juicy orange into quarters, and squeeze the juice into the pot. Add two of the squeezed orange quarters to the pot as well, and use the other two for zest, adding it all to the pot. Add a cup of water and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the cranberries are done softly popping through their skins. Stir in a teaspoon each of minced ginger and garlic, a quarter cup of packed brown sugar, a third of a cup of rice vinegar, and three tablespoons soy sauce. Cook five more minutes and turn off.
After you've enjoyed this and the holiday concludes, take advantage of the post-Thanksgiving turkey deals, as grocery stores dump their frozen turkeys and parts. You won't find a cheaper and tastier form of animal protein to fill your freezer. It also pays to make enough sauce to store some in jars, building up a supply with which to enjoy your turkey stash. My guess: Henry Hall would be proud.