Seasons by the Sea: It’s Cranberry Time

They are tiny and tart, full of vitamin C, pectin, and antioxidants
The best way to know if you have found cranberries, as opposed to other inedible berries, in your foraging is to cut them open. Laura Donnelly Photos

Cranberries are one of my favorite fruits. So much so that I wish they were available year round. Yes, you can freeze your own or find them frozen or dried at the grocery store, but fresh cranberries are only available from October to December. 

They are tiny and tart, full of vitamin C, pectin, and antioxidants. They also have a lot of benzoic acid, now a common preservative in prepared foods.

Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America, and have been known as sassamanesh, ibimi, and atoqua by the various tribes that first discovered them. Native Americans mashed cranberries with deer meat and fat to make “pemmican,” kind of the first energy bar-jerky food. They also used the juice in poultices to draw poison out of arrow wounds and to dye rugs and blankets. 

Cranberries grow on long, low vines or evergreen shrubs in sandy bogs and marshes in the Northeast, Wisconsin, Pacific Northwest, Scandinavia, Canada, and Eastern Europe — 98 percent of cranberries are grown in the United States and Canada.

This fruit can be used in both sweet and savory recipes and is best known as a condiment in the form of jelly with or without whole berries to go with Thanksgiving feasts. You can grind cranberries up raw or cook them with oranges, spices, ginger, onions, and garlic. I like to make chutneys and apple cranberry pan dowdy. Pandowdy or pan dowdy is one of America’s oldest desserts and was a favorite of Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams and the first First Lady to reside in and entertain in the new White House. It is called “dowdy” because it is not a particularly elegant dessert. It is rustic, like other similarly named old-fashioned desserts — grunts, buckles, and slumps.

It just so happens that cranberries grow here on the East End, but I was informed by my editor that divulging the location would amount to what is known in the fishing community as “spot burning.” 

I’m going to tell you anyway. If you live in Montauk, you drive west, if you live in East Hampton, you go east. Go down that road (left turn or right, depending on which direction you came from), park your car at the end and then walk a ways until you see the bogs. Helpful? You’re welcome.

I have been cranberry picking twice. It’s not really “picking,” it’s more like wading and swishing and scooping. The plants are beautiful with tiny bright green fern-like leaves. It’s not likely you would confuse this berry with other red, possibly inedible, berries, but if you get confused, slice some berries open. They are white inside with a few little seeds, and they bounce. I have to admit that my scavenging yielded a paltry amount, but it was easy to supplement courtesy of Ocean Spray.

Cranberries were first commercially cultivated around 1816 by a Revolutionary War veteran, Captain Henry Hall of Cape Cod. In 1912, a lawyer named Marcus Urann started buying cranberry bogs, formed a cooperative, and started canning them. This became the Ocean Spray company. The jiggly canned jelly we see at many Thanksgiving tables first appeared in 1940.

The harvesting of cranberries can be done dry, with a comb-like machine, or wet, by flooding the bogs. The berries float to the top of the water and can then be scooped up and processed. They store very well because of their high acidity and phenolic compounds. According to Harold McGee, in his book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” “the spicy aroma of cranberries is created by a combination of terpenes and spicy phenolic derivatives: cinnamates, benzoates, vanillin, and almonds benzaldehyde.” They are so full of pectin that if you macerate them in alcohol the mixture will gel!

Dried cranberries are excellent in baked goods like cookies, cakes, muffins, scones, and bars. Cranberry juice, both red and white, is tasty and healthy and reputed to help with urinary tract infections. However, if you are prone to getting kidney stones, stay away, the berries are full of oxalate which some doctors believe causes kidney stones.

Enjoy this native berry fresh through the holiday season and freeze some for later use. (This is best done by placing them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the freezer, then transferring to Ziploc baggies.) Fresh cranberries will keep for a month, possibly longer, and dried berries (Craisins), available year round, can be rehydrated if you desire, or simply tossed in salads, on roasted Brussels sprouts, in a wild rice pilaf, and many more recipes where a sprightly and tart flavor will enhance the dish.

Here are some recipes to inspire you.

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Adding cranberries to apple pandowdy, a rustic early American recipe, makes a satisfying Thanksgiving dessert.