Legend says that cranberries have been a tradition for Thanksgiving dinner since the Pilgrims served the tart and tasty fruit at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., along with wild turkey and succotash. In more recent times, the most popular way to serve up cranberries has been in a sauce, but there are many other ways to incorporate them into your Thanksgiving festivities.
"Cranberries are an extremely versatile ingredient," said Cindy Taccini, manager of the Ocean Spray Test Kitchen. "Whether you use juice, sauce, dried or fresh, cranberries add something special to every dish -- from savory to sweet, appetizers to desserts."
The use of cranberries goes back to Native Americans, who used them for medicinal purposes and also as a preservative for their meats.
"They used cranberries, fat and ground venison to make a survival cake known as pemmican," Taccini said. "They also used the fruit in poultices and fabric dyes."
The growing season for cranberries is from May to September and October and they are grown only in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, as well as in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Quebec.
The majority of cranberries are water harvested, "which creates the beautiful, spectacular sea of red that is often photographed," said Taccini. The other small percentage of cranberries are dry harvested, which is more labor intensive and involves a motorized, walk behind harvester that combs through the cranberries, plucking them off of the vine.
Aside from tradition, there's another reason to add them to you feast -- they're good for you. Cranberries contain antioxidants that help cleanse and purify your body, and their natural compounds also help maintain urinary tract health by not allowing bacteria to stick.
Other research shows that cranberries can also help in blocking bacteria responsible for ulcers and certain oral bacteria that can lead to gum disease, according to cranberries.org.
Today, they can be used a variety of ways. Recipes from oceanspray.com include ultimate party meatballs, wild rice with cranberries and caramelized onions and creamy braised pearl onions in white cranberry sauce.
Main dishes can even get a little tart treatment, with white cranberry turkey brine and a cranberry maple glaze for the turkey. When it comes to desserts, cranberries sweeten up a number of treats, including oatmeal cranberry white chocolate chunk cookies and cranberry pumpkin cheesecake. And, of course, with Thanksgiving dinner comes leftovers, which you can use to create dishes such as a smoked turkey and cranberry gourmet pizza or panini.
Dawn Allen, the communications manager for the Cape Cod Cranberry Grower's Association, said her family has their own cranberry tradition on Thanksgiving. Her family makes two different stuffings -- one to put inside the turkey and a separate stuffing, with only a single cranberry in it, which she called the "dishes batch."
"Whoever gets that lone cranberry in their stuffing, they do the dishes," she said.
Allen said she also makes a cranberry butter that she uses to spread on dinner rolls.
Cranberry drinks are another way of incorporating the fruit, and those recipes include the festive sparkler and the cranberry wassail (from oceanspray.com) as well as the cranberry cordial and margarita (from cranberries.org).
No matter how you choose to use cranberries for your Turkey Day dinner, "they certainly are the star of the Thanksgiving table," Taccini said.
WHITE CRANBERRY TURKEY BRINE
2 64-ounce bottles Ocean Spray White Cranberry Juice Drink
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
8 cloves garlic, crushed
8 bay leaves
1 8- to 12-pound whole turkey, neck and giblets reserved for another use
Yields 8 to 12 servings
Mix all ingredients, except turkey, in a 13 1/2-quart stockpot until salt and sugar are mostly dissolved. Submerge turkey in brine. Refrigerate turkey in covered stockpot for 12 to 18 hours.
Discard brine. Dry turkey with paper towels.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roast unstuffed turkey for 2 3/4 to 3 hours or until internal temperature of the thigh reaches 180 degrees.
Grill preparation: Grill turkey over medium indirect heat with a drip pan under the grill. Grill for 2 to 3 hours, or until internal temperature of thigh reaches 180 degrees.
OATMEAL CRANBERRY WHITE CHOCOLATE CHUNK COOKIES
2/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 6-ounce package Ocean Spray Craisins Original Sweetened Dried Cranberries
2/3 cup white chocolate chunks or chips
Yields 30 cookies
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using an electric mixer, beat butter or margarine and sugar together in a medium mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs, mixing well. Combine oats, flour, baking soda and salt in a separate mixing bowl. Add to butter mixture in several additions, mixing well after each addition. Stir in sweetened dried cranberries and white chocolate chunks.
Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.