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Cranberries go far beyond turkey companion

Just because Thanksgiving is past is no reason to bypass fresh cranberries.

Cranberries are just starting to punctuate my menus in bright, tangy bursts. And every time I plan to use fresh cranberries, I buy an extra bag for the freezer in anticipation of cranberry sauce, regardless of the season.

Most of us have heard that cranberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Consuming cranberries has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and bad cholesterol, along with increased levels of good cholesterol. Cranberries also are thought to promote oral health, reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases and inhibit bacteria, including E. coli, from adhering to the urinary tract, while guarding against stroke, stomach ulcers and infections.

Native Americans used cranberries in medicinal poultices, as well as dyes. Cranberries are one of three fruits considered native to North America — the others are blueberries and Concord grapes.

Cranberries also are an important component of the Oregon cornucopia. The state has roughly 3,000 acres of cranberries, producing 39.5 million pounds in 2014, behind only Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Nearly all Oregon cranberry cultivation is in Coos and Curry counties, a point of pride for this South Coast native. I’ve always loved the fall spectacle of cranberries’ “wet harvest” in bogs bordering Highway 101. Loosened from their vines, the ripe berries float, creating a ruby carpet on the water, often shimmering under sun-drenched skies. The bogs aren’t actually wetlands but rather sandy, well-drained tracts of upland dunes that also support pine trees, huckleberries and grasses, but little else. Enclosing the fields with dikes to retain intentional flooding facilitates harvest.

Decades ago, Ocean Spray was synonymous with cranberries, and many South Coast farmers remain part of the company’s co-op, which commingles berries from all over the country. But recent years have seen options emerge for organic and single-source cranberries, raising their profile among proponents of the locavore movement.

Like so many regional specialties, cranberries make an eye-catching component of holiday gift baskets and festive spreads. Beyond Thanksgiving, cranberry sauce is a delicious addition to platters of fine cheese and charcuterie. It can top cheesecakes and nestle inside pastry shells, both sweet and savory. I like cranberry sauce with ham, sausages, lamb, duck and cured meats. It’s even delicious with roasted salmon.

And cranberry sauce can incorporate a variety of fruits, berries and spices. My family loves the marriage of cranberry-raspberry, cranberry-cherry, cranberry-apple and cranberry-pear. Combining blueberries or huckleberries emphasizes cranberries’ Oregon pedigree.

Cranberry sauce can be made in the 30 minutes before mealtime. But it also improves in flavor and texture by resting in the fridge for a day or two before you serve it.

In a pot over medium-low heat, dissolve about 1/2 cup sugar in 1/4 cup water. Add two bags of fresh cranberries and increase the heat to medium-high, stirring. Add a cup of any other fruit you desire. Peel and dice apples and pears, if using. If adding berries or liquid that contain natural sugars, slightly reduce the amount of refined sugar.

When the mixture starts to boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, continue stirring and listen for the berries popping. 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 stove before serving or transferring to the fridge.

Feel free to adjust the sweetness and play with the flavorings. Dissolve the sugar in some fruit juice, Port or other dessert wine. Add citrus peel, cinnamon stick, split vanilla bean or peeled and minced ginger to the pot. Cranberries can tread into the territory of savory relish with additions of diced onion or jalapeno.

Vinegar is one way to showcase cranberries’ pucker. I fell in love with pickled cranberries nearly a decade ago when I tried a batch prepared by local fermentation expert and author Kirsten Shockey. I rationed the jar of pickled cranberries she gave me, primarily eating them on grilled artisan bread with a broiled topping of raw-milk mozzarella. They’re also a natural alongside blue cheese and sharp cheddar.

Try the recipe yourself, including in the following salad that could incorporate cooked chicken if you’ve had your fill of turkey.

Quick Pickled Cranberries

2 cups cider vinegar

2 cups maple syrup

3 cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon whole cloves

4 whole star anise

Zest of 2 oranges (zest cut into long strips using a vegetable peeler or knife)

About 1 tablespoon very thinly sliced fresh ginger rounds

2 (10-ounce) bags fresh cranberries (or frozen, thawed)

In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar and maple syrup with 2 cups water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add the cinnamon, cloves, star anise, orange zest and ginger. Cover and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes to marry flavors. Add the cranberries to liquid. As soon as liquid comes to a simmer once again, remove from heat.

Pour cranberries, liquid and spices into a nonreactive bowl. Weight cranberries down using a heavy plate so they stay submerged in liquid.

Refrigerate cranberries for at least a day to give flavors time to develop. Pickles will last, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.

Makes a generous quart.

Homemade Cranberry Vinegar

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

Peel from an orange or tangerine

1 (12-ounce) package fresh or frozen cranberries

In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients with 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until cranberries burst. Push a wooden spoon against cranberries to release juices. Cool. Strain through a fine sieve or coffee filter into sterilized bottles or jars. Seal tightly. Discard cranberries and cinnamon stick. Chill until ready to use.

Makes about 3 cups

Bulla’s Ensalada De Cranberry

2 cups blended oil

1/4 cup cranberry vinegar (see recipe above)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 heads baby gem lettuce or Romaine hearts

1/2 cup heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half

2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) chopped walnuts

1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) dried cranberries

2 cups shredded, cooked turkey

2 ounces crumbled goat cheese

In a mixing bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, mustard, honey and salt; whisk until combined.

Toss the greens, tomatoes, walnuts and cranberries with 4 ounces, or to taste, of vinaigrette. Top with the shredded turkey and goat cheese.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from Bulla Gastrobar, Coral Gables, Florida.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.