The cranberry, along with blueberries and the Concord grape, have a unique and special place in American cuisine.  They are the three North American native fruits that are grown in commercial quantities.  There are of course, many other fruits native to North America such as the paw paw and the Saskatoon berry, but these aren’t grown commercially.  Native Americans used wild cranberries extensively as a food and also as a fabric dye and healing agent.  When the European settlers landed, they adopted the versatile cranberry and used it as a valuable bartering tool. Because they are full of vitamin C, American whalers and sailors also carried cranberries on their voyages to prevent scurvy.

The name “cranberry” is thought to come from the Pilgrim name for the fruit, “crane berry”.  It apparently was called this because the small, pink blossoms that appear in the Spring resemble the head and bill of a sand hill crane. It has also been called the “bounceberry” because they will bounce when ripe.  This is in fact a good way to test for ripeness when you buy them in bulk.

The USA still is the place where much of the world’s supply of cranberries comes from.  Wisconsin is the largest producer accounting for over half of the production.  Maine is next with 25% or so followed by New Jersey, Washington and Oregon who make up the rest.  Canada also produces a large crop of cranberries mainly in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia.

One of the common misconceptions about cranberries is that they are grown in or underwater.  They do require water in the beginning, and typically, end of their growing cycle. The season begins in winter when growers flood the bogs with water that freezes and insulates the vines from frost. As the winter snow melts, and spring arrives, the bogs are drained and the plants grow in dry beds.  Blossoms soon appear and in mid-July, petals fall from the flowers leaving tiny green nodes which, after weeks of summer sun, become red, ripe cranberries. Cranberries are typically harvested in September and October. Most cranberries are harvested using the wet method when growers flood their bogs with water.  They then use harvesting machines that loosen the cranberries from the vine. With small air pockets in their center, the cranberries float to the water’s surface. Growers corral the berries onto conveyers that lift them from the flooded bog onto trucks and into processing plants. A small percentage of cranberries are dry harvested. This process uses mechanical pickers, resembling lawn mowers with comb-like conveyer belts that pick the berries and carry them to attached burlap bags.

Storing Cranberries
If you buy cranberries in a plastic bag, the bag can go directly into the freezer. Bulk cranberries can be frozen in a freezer bag or container.  Cranberries will last up to nine months in the freezer. Frozen cranberries can be used in recipes without thawing since frozen berries will be soft when thawed, it is easier to chop or grind them while frozen.

Health Benefits of Cranberries
During the last decade or so there have been several research studies that suggest cranberries are not only a healthy, low-calorie fruit, they may also help prevent urinary tract infections and reduce the risk of gum disease, ulcers, heart disease and may have anticancer properties.  Cranberries contain significant amounts of flavonoids and polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants. To put it simply, antioxidants protect our bodies from harmful molecules that we are exposed to every day of our lives.

Makes about 1 quart

This makes a not-too-sweet palate cleanser when served by itself, or a nice foil for fresh tropical fruits like pineapple and mango.  My favorite use is to scoop a small ball into a martini glass and then splash a little vodka over.  It’s a fun version of the classic “Cosmopolitan”.

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1-1/2 pounds (5 cups) fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup fresh lime juice (or to taste)
2 tablespoons orange flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier*

Add sugar and water to a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved.  Add cranberries and simmer covered until berries have burst, about 10 minutes.

Strain mixture through a medium mesh strainer, pressing down gently on solids to extract the juices.  Discard solids and chill the mixture covered for at least 2 hours.  Stir in the lime juice, liqueur and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions.  Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.

*If you prefer a non-alcoholic version you can use one of the orange flavored syrups used to flavor coffees that are now widely available.