Cranberry sauce: tart-sweet, full of anti-oxidants and vitamin C—and only eaten once a year. Who thought that was a good idea? Any hot meal involving protein and starch can benefit from a dollop of homemade cranberry sauce or relish. It’s the ultimate complement to a savory dish, as well as being a cold-season immune booster.
Just before Thanksgiving, a friend suggested we embark on foraging mission for cranberries. I imagined slugging through a bog, knee-deep in freezing water. Little did I know, I’d find myself on my bum, in a sand and moss tract 40 feet below enormous sand dunes.
Bogs are one of North America’s most distinctive types of wetlands, and this section of the Walking Dunes in Montauk where my friend suggested we go is, technically, wetlands, though it will only feel soggy after a good rain. A cranberry bog ecosystem is made up of thick sphagnum moss, acidic waters, peat deposits and a spongy, mat-like substance on the water’s surface. Cranberries thrive in beds within the bog, which consist of alternating layers of sand, peat, gravel and clay. But this uncultivated tract we foraged in thrives by sending down long roots into the more wet layers below the sand. It is a truly fascinating and confounding experience, walking through what looks to the eye like a craggy expanse of moorland heather nestled between beach dunes.
Cranberries are actually related to blueberry and laurel, and can grow in most soils where you find azaleas and rhododendrons (which means you can even plant cranberries yourself, in your own garden). The plant on which the berries grow is a compact, slightly viney groundcover. Native peoples had been eating cranberries in our area for centuries, and European settlers took to the tiny, bright berry as they share a culinary similarity to the lingonberry. Word of warning: there are other small red berries on green bushy groundcover that grow in the same area, and those berries are terrible to taste. Cranberries are white on the inside and have very tiny seeds; they are tart, but not horribly so.
On the day we foraged, three adults and twice as many kids hiked through the pine-lined trail off Napeague Harbor, the late autumn sun low in the sky and the wind biting at our cheeks. One must scale a very high and steep dune off the path, then try not to tumble down the other side into the vale where the cranberries grow. The berries are so low to the ground that kneeling (or sitting, as I did) is the best way to see them and thus pick them. But it is a rewarding chore. Each of us came away with a basket or sac full of gorgeous berries. We raced back to the beach where we had parked trying to beat the dark and dampness.
At home, cranberry sauce was prepared in the many and varying ways each of us called “traditional.” Cranberries, fresh-frozen and in the refrigerator section of stores, can be had all winter long. And next year, I’m going to go foraging a few weeks earlier and freeze my own. I’m excited to add cranberry sauce to my Christmas table, and again to other dinners long into the winter. Here are my two favorite cranberry sauce recipes, one sweet, one citrus-savory.
Strawberry-Sweet Cranberry Sauce
- 12 oz of cooked cranberries
- ¼ cup sugar
- 5 oz frozen organic strawberries
- 4 tablespoons crushed pineapple
Thaw strawberries (do not drain liquid), slice them into halves and quarters, and set aside. Pour cooked and cooled cranberries into a bowl. Add strawberries gradually, adding only enough to flavor the sauce but not overpower the cranberries (keep tasting a little as you go). Mix in crushed pineapple a little at a time, and keep tasting as you go (you may have some leftover pineapple). Refrigerate and serve cool. Will save in fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Erin O’D’s Raw Citrus Cranberry Relish
- 12 oz of cranberries, raw
- 1 organic Orange
- 1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon Cinnamon
Zest and juice the orange. Put juice, zest, and all other ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend. Serve room temperature. Keeps in fridge for a week.