Cranberries, it could be said, long ago played a crucial part in assuring that the United States was eventually formed, which is a glorious thing or just an OK thing, depending on how much credit-card debt you have.
As one of the few fruits native to North America (blueberries and Concord grapes are two of the others), cranberries helped the Pilgrims stay alive in a harsh new land. American Indians taught them to use the gorgeous, tart, deep red berry not just as a nutritious food (they mashed them in cornmeal, mixed them in bread, ate them fresh and added them to pemmican, a survival food made of dried meat, melted fat and berries) but also as a medicine (for scurvy, stomach ailments and nervousness).
Today, we still acknowledge and exploit their medicinal qualities well. According to Harold McGee, in “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” the high acidity that makes them unpalatable raw also contributes to their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Cranberries really do help prevent urinary tract infections, he writes, by preventing bacteria from adhering to various tissues in the human body.
And yet many modern day Americans thank cranberries by relegating them to holiday dishes (if you can call canned cranberry sauce a dish) and the occasional muffin ingredient.
We have nothing against homemade cranberry sauces, of which there are a million imaginative variations, but it’s still a pity to limit the noble berry when it’s so delicious — fresh or dried — in fruit crumble (pear and apple), compotes, vinaigrettes, cakes, tarts, pies, stuffings, sauces, chutneys and even savory dishes.
Buy them fresh, and you can keep them frozen in the bag you buy them in for up to two years. Which means you can have cranberries in summer if you wish — perhaps on the Fourth of July!
Cranberry Tart With Hot Toffee Sauce
Serve this tart, adapted from “In Season: Cooking with Vegetables and Fruits,” by Sarah Raven, with crème fraîche or whipped cream, if you like.
1 pound cranberries, fresh or frozen
Juice and grated zest of 1 large orange
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups pecans, roughly chopped
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup flour, sifted
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup whipping cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix cranberries, orange juice and zest in a medium saucepan; cook over medium-high heat until cranberries pop, about 8 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar; mix well. Add pecans. Pour mixture into a greased cast-iron skillet or cake pan.
Beat the remaining 1/2 cup of the sugar with the eggs in a medium bowl; mix in the flour and melted butter until smooth. Pour batter over the cranberry mixture. Bake 40-45 minutes; cool slightly.
Meanwhile, for the toffee sauce, heat the butter, brown sugar and cream together in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Heat to a slow boil; cook, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened, about 8 minutes. Pour into serving bowl. Slice the tart; serve with sauce.
Yield: 8 servings
Nutrition information: Per serving: 617 cal (57 percent from fat), 41 g total fat, (14 g saturated), 107 mg chol, 63 g carbo, 6 g pro, 32 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber