Celebrate cranberries

There are many ways to enjoy these signature Oregon berries besides cranberry sauce
Cranberry fruit jellies are a candy version of the traditional Thanksgiving condiment. (Tammy Ljungblad / Kansas City Star)MCT

There comes the time every year when eating with the seasons hardly needs a second thought.

It commences with harvest celebrations of late September and early October, continues with excursions to area pumpkin patches for Halloween and culminates in Thanksgiving's bounty.

CRANBERRY-PEAR FRUIT JELLIES

3 firm-ripe Comice or Bartlett pears (1 1/2 pounds total)

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries

3 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick

2 (3-ounce) packages Certo liquid pectin (not powdered)

Rinse an 8-inch, square pan with water and shake off excess. Line bottom and sides of pan with plastic wrap, pressing into corners to smooth. (Water helps plastic wrap adhere.)

Quarter and core the pears, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces. (Do not peel.)

In a 4- to 6-quart, heavy pot combine pears with the cranberries, 2 1/4 cups of the sugar, the butter, cinnamon stick and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until cranberries burst and pears are tender, about 10 minutes.

Remove and discard cinnamon stick, then carefully transfer hot mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth, about 1 minute. (Mixture will be thick.) Force through a medium-mesh sieve back into same pot, pressing on solids with back of a spoon and discarding solids.

Put a plate in freezer to chill.

Bring cranberry mixture to a boil over moderate-to-high heat, add the pectin and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick and pastelike, about 45 minutes. To test, remove from heat and drop a teaspoonful on chilled plate and chill in freezer for 1 minute. Tilt plate: Mixture should remain in a firm mound and not run. If mixture runs, continue cooking and stirring; repeat test every 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and immediately pour mixture into prepared pan. Gently tap sides of pan to smooth top and eliminate any air bubbles. Cool to room temperature, for at least 1 hour, then cover surface directly with plastic wrap and chill until firm, for at least 2 hours and up to a week.

Unmold fruit mixture onto a cutting board and remove plastic wrap. Cut into 1-inch squares using a sharp knife. (For easier cutting, rinse knife with hot water, then dry it between cuts.)

Just before serving, spread remaining 1 cup sugar in a shallow bowl and coat squares on all sides. Makes 64 candies.

— Recipe from the November 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine.

Although some unseasonal items — corn and green beans, for example — have a way of showing up at the holiday spread, at least one food is not only ripe for enjoyment but a unique, regional crop.

Cranberries deserve their place in the traditional Thanksgiving feast both for the timeliness of their harvest and status as one of three fruits considered native to North America (the others are blueberries and Concord grapes). Oregonians have more reason to include cranberries in the celebratory meal because the state remains the fourth-largest producer, with some 2,800 acres cultivated in Coos and Curry counties.

Growing up on the coast, I relished a drive down Highway 101, where the "wet harvest" of cranberries is an autumn spectacle. Loosened from their vines when farmers flood their bogs, the ripe berries float, creating a ruby carpet on the water's surface, often shimmering under sun-drenched skies.

Historically, most berries were bound for an Ocean Spray receiving plant before mingling with others from all over the country. But more of the coast's approximately 180 farmers are choosing to direct-market their berries amid consumers' heightened interest in locally produced foods. The strategy must be working because Oregon's cranberry production has continued to increase over the past three years, with a projected 39-percent jump this year from 2010's figure, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Most cranberries on the commodities market, of course, will be squeezed into juice, dried for snacks or incorporated into processed foods. The window for enjoying these fruits in their fresh state is October through December. Happily, they freeze extremely well, so stash a bag or two away for later in the year.

The Native American name for cranberry, "bitter berry," is well-deserved and explains why many Americans eat them only as an overly sweet jelly that comes from a can.

I happen to love cranberries' zing and how easily they can be cooked into a sauce, compote, chutney or filling. While I've experimented with citrus, ginger — even jalapeno — in my cranberry concoctions, I know they're too intense for most palates. So when entertaining for Thanksgiving, I tame cranberries' tartness with other fruits, namely blueberries, raspberries and cherries.

To make cranberry sauce, dissolve about 1/2 cup sugar (a little less if using other fruit) in 1/4 cup water in a pot over medium-low heat. Add a bag of fresh cranberries (or half a bag, plus an equal amount of other fruit) and increase the heat to high, stirring. When the mixture starts to boil, reduce the heat to simmer, continue stirring and listen for the berries to pop. When they've been popping for a couple of minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot and let it cool for 20 minutes or so on the stovetop before refrigerating.

Cranberries are one coastal company's cause for commemorating a half-century milestone this year. In 1962, a Bandon resident developed a cranberry jelly candy and sold it from a small storefront near her home on Highway 101. Clifford Shaw purchased the recipe in 1974 and expanded Cranberry Sweets' production to more than 200 varieties of confections and chocolates.

My favorite remains the original: cranberry coated in English walnuts. Also known by its French name, "pates de fruits," this makes a nice hostess gift or holiday treat, particularly mingled with Rogue Valley pears, a combination on which even Cranberry Sweets has yet to capitalize.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish.


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