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Thanksgiving Family Secrets : IN THE KITCHEN : Hand-Me-Down Cranberries

November 17, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of cranberry season and when I was a kid, I think I looked forward to the holidays as much for the opportunity to eat cranberries as for the actual opening of presents. That's a ridiculous overstatement, of course, but while I've long discarded any model airplanes or socks I might have received back then, I still relish cranberries.

It wasn't until I was a teen-ager and began dabbling in holiday meals outside of my immediate family circle that I came to understand why some people always passed the plate when cranberries were served. I'd never tasted that horrid chop of barely sweetened raw berries and big chunks of orange peel that passes for relish in some households.

In our family, cranberries came in two styles. There was the familiar commercial jelly, which squeezed out of the can with one giant sucking sound and landed, wobbling, on the plate, still shaped like the container from which it came. Sneer if you like, I still like those sweet-tart vacu-formed bricks.

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Still, they were a definite second choice in my cranberry hit parade. My absolute favorite cranberry dish--and it remains so to this day--is from an old recipe that was handed down to me through my mother's side of the family.

To my mind, this is pretty close to the perfect holiday side dish. Spicy with cloves and cinnamon, slightly sweet and definitely tart, it's a great complement to turkey--particularly the gamier dark meat. It's also good ladled onto a turkey sandwich. In fact, I find it hard to pass the refrigerator during the holidays without dipping into the jar of cranberries.

The relish is remarkably simple to make, just poach the berries in a spiced syrup until the first ones begin to pop (that is no mere figure of speech--you'll hear them across the kitchen). Immediately remove the pan from the heat and then let the berries sit in the refrigerator for several days to mellow and fully absorb the spicy taste.

It's crucial that the berries not overcook. This is not only a matter of texture (though part of the dish's pleasure is the way those tart little things burst between your teeth). But when the berries overcook and split, they become simply sweet, rather than having that delicious balance of sweet and sour.

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I've probably eaten these cranberries at both Thanksgiving and Christmas every year since I had enough gum power to pop a berry. Which raises the interesting question: Why only on the holidays?

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Printing this recipe has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving tradition for me as making it. Either way, I've never had a complaint.

MOM'S CRANBERRIES

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup water

3 whole cloves

3 whole allspice

2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries

Zest 1 orange

Combine sugar, water, cloves, allspice and cinnamon sticks in 4-quart saucepan. Bring to boil. Cook, stirring, until syrup is clear, about 3 minutes. Add cranberries and cook just until they begin to pop, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat, add orange zest and cool. Keep in refrigerator at least 3 days before using. Makes 2 1/2 cups relish, about 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

132 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.41 grams fiber.

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