Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Consider the Cranberry.....and Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, perhaps even more so than Christmas. Don't get me wrong, I am a complete sucker for carols, tree decorating, 5-year olds doing a nativity re-enactment, you name it, but Thanksgiving has managed to stay pure and relatively uncorrupted by gross commercialism, to the point that retailers have kind of skipped Thanksgiving and now move right onto Christmas decorations immediately following Halloween.

There are no presents on Thanksgiving, no material gains, and you don't even get a lot of time off of work. But to me, the idea of sitting down for an awesome meal with your friends and family and making a point of giving thanks for it all, makes Thanksgiving the perfect holiday for the tummy and the soul. And while it may seem odd, even hypocritical, to some that we Americans need to set aside a whole day just to be thankful, I think it is a wonderful thing that every year there is a day set aside to remind us how lucky we are.

And yes, viscerally most of us are probably aware of our good fortune in our day-to-day lives, but it always takes some sort of reminder for us to consciously recognize it. Whether it is the annual battle against the crazies that descend on Penn Station each year trying to get back to Washington, only to be welcomed home at midnight by a hot midnight snack and 5 jealous pugs, or your pet wolf's appreciation for his daily croissant, these instances should be savored and appreciated. After all, isn't the fact that we are in a position to take so much for granted, something to be thankful for as well? I am never thankful for clean water, or hell, even my own skin, until I read about dysentery and cholera in The New York Times or I fall off my bike wearing nothing but spandex and have road rash for three weeks.

Every year I always resolve to call my grandparents more often, play the piano more, go to church, not be shy about telling people I care, not be bitter, volunteer more, etc. But of course, I promptly forget about this about two days back into my routine.

I have even found it difficult to truly appreciate things like exercise and a good book on a routine basis. So often, I fail to appreciate the exhilaration of speed on a ride, the solitude of a long run, or the smoothness of a good swim, because the path is too crowded or I am just doing this so I don't die during my next triathlon, or, oh gross, that bum is peeing over there. And too often, when I read, I have a hard time getting the "Editorial Jess" or worse, the "Publicist Jess" out of my head.

The one thing I have been able to slow down and savor on a daily basis though, is food. I am "enjoying my croissant" each day, as it were. I relish my french-pressed coffee each morning, savor every meal with Vronsky, covet every warm sip of home-made chicken soup. I have come to love "carpet picnics" with my girlfriends as much as I love a night out at a Michelin starred restaurant.

And when I sit down at the table tomorrow, what I will savor the most, besides being home with my family, is not the turkey or even the stuffing, but the humble cranberry.

Cranberries are ridiculously good for you, and have a tartness that I absolutely adore. I love that fuzzy feeling on my tongue that my morning glass of cranberry juice gives me each morning, and craisins are a must-have on any salad I make. Yet like many things we should appreciate but don't, the cranberry gets overlooked in the Thanksgiving spread by the more glamorous, showy dishes.

I am not talking about that weird canned stuff that comes out in a perfect cylinder (although that is a sight to behold in and of itself). But the tangy, ruby-red sauce that adds fresh bite to each morsel of potato, turkey, and stuffing, which, without cranberry sauce, is just brown on top of more brown.

Additionally, cranberry sauce is VITAL to any Thanksgiving left-over sandwich, which, quite frankly, is almost better than the meal itself. Or you can be like my father and just dip a cold piece of turkey right into the sauce, and then listen to my mother go ape-shit when she finds turkey bits in the sauce the following morning.

Here is my favorite recipe for classic cranberry sauce. Make it all year round!

You will need:

14-oz. of cranberries, either fresh or thawed frozen ones
1 1/2 cup of packed brown sugar
1/2 cup of orange juice
1/3 cup of Grand Marnier or Cointreau (mmm)
8 black peppercorns
6 allspice berries
5 cloves
1 2" stick of cinnamon, broken in half

Heat the cranberries, sugar, OJ, and Grand Marnier in a 2 qt. saucepan over medium heat. The cranberries will "burst" open once things get hot. Place the peppercorns, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon in a piece of cheesecloth and tie ends with kitchen twine. Add this "spice bundle" to the mixture. Cook, stirring often, until cranberries soften and the mixture thickens, which usually takes about 25-30 minutes.

Once mushy and "sauce like," transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and refrigerate for an hour or more to let the flavors meld. Take out the spice bundle and throw it away, and stir the sauce before serving. Yummy!

If this is too complex for the chaos of your own Thanksgiving, you can make a very basic sauce by first bringing one cup of water, one cup sugar to a boil, adding cranberries, bringing back to a boil, and then down to a simmer for about 10 minutes or until they burst. From here, you can add a bit of cinnamon, all spice, raisins, etc. stir in, then remove and refrigerate as mentioned above.


  1. I am very thankful for you, sweet Gastro Jess! Your culinary skills cannot even compare with your other charms.

    Cranberries are now calling my name....



  2. Ah ha. but you do not mention your cookie fail. Although cookies without flour aren't too bad...