It's cranberry season. Cranberries are one of very few fruit native to North America, along with blueberries and Concord grapes. During harvesting season cranberry bogs suddenly become scarlet ponds. When the sun reflects on a field that's been flooded and "beaten" it's pretty spectacular: all around you, a sea of floating red berries. Not only are they an integral part of New England history, but they are also loaded with flavor and nutrients. But they should also be used for other culinary purposes than to complement Thanksgiving turkey because they easily become excellent recipes for the outdoors enthusiast.
A few years ago, I remember, I would have never hiked in the Adirondacks without a few handfuls of currants in my packsack. They were associated with outdoor activities just like fall foliage is with New England. Then I fell for sea kayaking. And things changed. Along with my new favorite sport came those sweet reddish and plump dry berries sold in convenient zipped bags by Ocean Spray Co-op. From then on they became so closely related to paddling that I could not imagine a kayak trip without bringing cranberries on board… That's encouraging because I must confess I've always hated currants. But when I started to read more about cranberries, I was fascinated to realize how closely linked they were to the history of the settlement in northern USA.
A legacy of the First Nations
Of course, they are part of a legacy from the First Nations. When you visit Plimoth Plantation, not far from Boston, you learn that the Wampanoag tribes were the first to introduce cranberries to settlers who had just arrived on the Mayflower during the harvest gathering they had in the fall of 1621. The Puritans adopted the little berry and used it in the same way their new Native friends did because they were nothing less than a survival staple, especially during the cold winter months. Cranberries helped prevent scurvy when fresh produce became rare. They were also used by Native people to protect against infections, to heal wounds, as an ointment and to dye clothes. Cranberries were cooked in many ways: with grains, corn and squash, boiled with maple sap, in soups and, of course, they were dried to make pemmican, the ancestor of our energy bars. Captain Henry Wall was the first to grow cranberries commercially in 1816 after he realized that his sandy fields located in Dennis, on Cape Cod, were the perfect spot to raise the red berry. Today, his descendants still grow cranberries at that same location. Cranberries are also cultivated in Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, New Brunswick and in Quebec.
A nutritional powerhouse
First Nations people had it right because in the last 10 years dozens of promising research papers (admittedly, many of them funded by the cranberry industry itself) linked the ruby berry to exceptional health virtues. As with any other fruit or vegetable that's of vibrant color, scientists have found that the pigments in cranberries that provide them with their red tint (brought out during cold October nights) are the main sign they are loaded with some specific and powerful phytochemicals which help protect the plant against aggressions from pollution, harmful uv-rays, and so on. These phytochemicals are called antioxidants because they prevent cell damage due to oxidation; the good news is their protective effect is passed on to any animal that eats them, including humans… For instance, cranberries contain important amounts of flavonoids and polyphenols, which reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. They also protect the urinary tract and teeth from bacterial infections. Newer research conducted by Professor James Joseph, from Tuft University tends to demonstrate that cranberries have a powerful effect on brain cells and can protect them against aging. Other promising studies are to show a link between a high consumption of cranberries and a lower risk of certain cancers, like prostate and breast cancer. Let's not forget that they are also exceptionally rich in Vitamin C and an excellent source of fibers.
Not only will cranberries jazz up any dish or snack with their tart flavor and sexy color but they also travel exceptionally well in any form (fresh, dry, canned in jelly or as juice). Here are a few easy recipes for your next paddling trips.
- 3 cups rolled oats
- 1 cup buckwheat flakes
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pinch of clove
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup organic canola (or sunflower) oil
- 1/2 cup clover honey
- 1 cup raw almonds, chopped
- 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1/2 cup dry mangoes, chopped
- 1 1/2 cup sweet dry cranberries
Preheat oven to 325?F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix together rolled oats and buckwheat flakes and spread on baking sheet. Sprinkle with spices and salt. In a glass bowl, mix thoroughly honey and oil with a whisk. Pour on the cereal mixture and knead with your fingers. Add chopped almonds, coconut flakes and mix again. Cook in oven for 10 minutes, remove from oven and stir to prevent burning. Put back in oven for an extra 15 minutes. Remove from oven, add mangoes and cranberries and mix well. Let stand for half an hour.
Double chocolate cranberry-pistachio barks
(These chocolate barks travel well in a plastic jar, on the bottom of your boat. They are very filling and a perfect snack with green tea or coffee.) (12 to 16 servings)
- 10 oz semi-sweet chocolate
- 6 oz white chocolate
- 1 1/2 cup pistachios, shelled, skin removed
- 1 1/2 cup dry cranberries
Line a square mold with extra-resistant aluminum foil. In the top of a double boiler, slowly melt dark chocolate over hot, not boiling water, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool. Repeat the operation to stabilize cocoa butter. (This is called tempering chocolate.) Add 1 cup of pistachios and 1 cup cranberries. Stir well. Pour in the foil-covered mold. Then, in a double boiler melt the white chocolate, but only once. When melted, drip half of it over the dark chocolate mixture, using a spoon in a nice zigzag pattern. Spread evenly the remaining pistachios and cranberries, then drip the rest of the melted white chocolate. Let stand, at room temperature 3 to 5 hours or until thickened and firm. Break into barks or cut into squares.
Cranberry-cracked wheat meal in a bowl
- 4 cups water
- 2 chicken or vegetable broth cubes (to make 24 oz)
- 2 tablespoon dry parsley
- 1 cup cracked wheat (also called bulghur)
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 1 celery stalk, finely diced
- 1 cup dry cranberries
- 6 oz extra-sharp cheddar, diced
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot, bring to a boil 4 cups of water. Add the chicken or vegetable broth cubes and the parsley and stir until dissolved. Add cracked wheat, diced vegetables. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes or until water is absorbed. Stir in cranberries and fluff the preparation with a fork. Add the Cheddar and serve immediately. You can also replace the cheese with canned chicken or tuna and replace carrots with broccoli and cauliflower florets.
- 1 cup fresh cranberries, unsweetened
- 1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 1/2 cup white unbleached flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup plain yogurt, with no gelatin
- The juice and zest of one orange
- 4 tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped
- 3/4 cup pecans, finely chopped
In a bowl, sprinkle fresh cranberries with one tablespoon of flour and one tablespoon of sugar. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350? F. Grease and flour a square cake pan. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat eggs well with a whisk, add sugar and keep whisking until fluffy. Add yogurt, orange juice and zest and mix well. Add the liquid mixture to dry ingredients. Stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Add chopped pecans, cranberries and ginger and mix again very lightly. Pour in cake pan and bake in oven for 50 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in cake pan for 20 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on a rack before slicing. Keeps well for at least 3 days during a paddling trip wrapped in aluminum foil and protected from humidity in a plastic box.