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Cranberries

Every year as the calendar approaches November, plastic bags full of bright red berries begin to appear on grocer's shelves. Equally true, is that once December draws to a close, these red berries will once again disappear. While some fresh fruits, like apples, enjoy year round popularity others, like cranberries, seem to be associated mainly with a season or holiday. Cranberries' ties to Thanksgiving date back to the its beginnings when they were served alongside the wild turkey. American Indians introduced the earliest settlers to this small, hard, smooth-skinned, shiny red, round to oval-shaped wild berry that is also known by so many names. The Indians used the cranberry as both a food and a medicine. Sailors as well as settlers traveling westward used cranberries, full of Vitamin C, as a way to ward off scurvy. On long sea voyages, to keep the cranberries fresh, the sailors would store the berries in barrels full of water. Besides the Concord grape and blueberry, the cranberry is one of three fruits that are native to America. It is the fruit of a small shrub with trailing vines from genus Vaccinium that likes cold climates. It grows best in poor acid soil in flooded areas called bogs or on moors or mountainsides. Although grown throughout the world, Northern Europe and North America are best known for the cranberry. In North America, cultivated cranberries are grown mainly in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon but can be found growing wild in bogs from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and westward to Michigan over to the west coasts of Oregon and Washington. Cultivating cranberries started in the early 1800s and it took many years of trial and error to discover the best techniques. Once painstakingly harvested by hand, machine methods were eventually developed to enable more cranberries to be grown with less effort. Processing of the berries involved finding an efficient method for separating the good cranberries from the bad. As good cranberries bounce and bad ones don't, a mechanical system was devised for sorting that incorporated this unusual characteristic. Before 1960 most cranberries were sold either fresh or canned (whole berry or jellied). It wasn't until the 1960s that the demand for cranberries started to exceed supply. This is when Ocean Spray introduced Cranberry Juice Cocktail. Its instant success led to other fruit combinations being developed like Cran-Raspberry. So popular are these drinks that most grown today are processed for fruit drinks. The cranberry's sour flavor means it's never eaten raw. Sugar is needed to temper its flavor.

Vaccinium is an old Latin name for cranberry, coming from 'vacca' meaning cow, so named because cows liked to eat the berries (hence the name Cowberry). Other names for the Cranberry are: Craneberry is so named probably because cranes are found in the cranberry bogs eating the berries. Bounceberry is so named because ripe cranberries bounce. Bearberry comes from the fact that the berries were eaten by bears. Lingonberry get its orgins from 'lingon' which is Swedish for cowberry.

Fresh cranberries are almost always sold in 12 ounce (340 grams) plastic bags = 3 cups whole or 2 1/2 cups finely chopped. 

Look for berries that are firm, plump, shiny, and evenly colored (light to dark red).  Avoid soft, discolored (white or green ones are under ripe) or shriveled cranberries.   Remove stems and wash just before using. When cooking cranberries they are done when they "pop". If you cook them too long they will taste bitter and turn to mush. Cranberries are harvested in the fall from early September through late October. They can be found in the produce section of grocery stores. Frozen cranberries can usually be found year round. Because cranberries contain benzoic acid, a natural preservative, they can be stored naturally for up to 2 months in the refrigerator or up to one year frozen. You do not need to defrost berries before using. Cranberries are used in both sweet and savory dishes. Commonly used in desserts, as well as confections, sauces, compotes, chutneys, and jellies. Their tart flavor is enhanced when combined with sweet ingredients or other fruits like apples.

Dried cranberries are used in both sweet and savory dishes. To re-hydrate dried cranberries cover with a hot liquid (water, liqueur, etc.), cover and let stand for 20-30 minutes. Drain.