BROWNS MILLS, N.J. — Love ’em or hate ’em, cranberries have long been part of America’s culinary history.
Even before Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave orders in 1864 for the tart ruby berries to be given to Union soldiers as part of their holiday meal, cranberries were common on the table. Native Americans ate them and the wild perennials also were part of New Englanders’ diet in the mid-1700s, cooked with maple syrup or honey into sauces, preserves and tarts.
Yet it wasn’t until the 1930s, when the Massachusetts Ocean Spray cooperative started selling whole and jellied cranberry sauce, that the berry was really woven into America’s Thanksgiving fabric. It’s a rare holiday celebration that doesn’t include a log of canned sauce or some spiffed up homemade variety; its tart-sweet zing adds a welcome punch of flavor, color and texture to tender slices of turkey.
Cranberries thrive in sandy, acidic soil and Jersey’s Pine Barrens region — where the ground fruit has been cultivated since the mid-1800s — is rich in both.
Many of the state’s 20-plus farms are descendants of the original growers. Joseph J. White, a fifth-generation cranberry farm at Whitesbog, Pemberton Township, has been growing cranberries for more than 150 years. Second-largest in New Jersey, it has 76 bogs of different sizes and varieties covering 350 acres in production. During the fall harvest, growers Brenda Conner and Joe Darlington, who market the fruit under the Pine Barrens Native Fruits label, give bus tours ($35; pbnf.co) to the sandy roads and narrow dams surrounding the bogs. It’s fascinating.
Workers start “corralling” the fruit in early October — 500 pounds every 2½ minutes — and are generally finished well before Thanksgiving. Just a tiny portion of the seasonal haul makes it to the market fresh; most berries are shipped north to Ocean Spray (whose cooperative now includes 700 grower families) to be canned, bottled or dried.
For generations, cranberries were picked by hand or scooped into baskets in a tedious process. Harvesting machines made things faster but left plenty of wasted fruit on the ground. When growers discovered that cranberries, because of their inner air pockets, float quite easily, things got interesting. In the 1960s growers started flooding the fields after harvest to pick up the leftover “floaters.”
Soon, though, they realized the entire process could be made much easier by flooding the field at harvest time, beating the submerged vines, and letting the berries float to the surface, where they could be skimmed away. The man-made cranberry bog was born, and cranberries were gathered by workers with wooden brooms and then sucked onto trucks by a conveyor belt.
Seeing all the fruit crushed by the rolling harvesters, Ms. Conner told her husband, Joe, that she could increase yield by 20 percent if he would just build her a floating harvester: a one-man barge equipped with spinning beater arms that could be towed back and forth across the water, whacking away at what lies beneath without causing so much damage. He did, and today the farm’s bogs average 280 to 300 100-pound barrels per acre each season. Whether they make it north to Ocean Spray depends on how well they bounce — the sprightlier the specimen, the tastier the berry. Substandard ones go into the compost pile.
Piloting the floating harvester, which is guided by GPS, Ms. Conner says, “is like playing Nintendo.” But it’s far from a game. To be a cranberry farmer is to always be on call with Mother Nature. The vines must be properly irrigated to protect them from frost 24/7; when the temperature dips below about 23 degrees, growers have to “run frost,” or run their irrigation pumps to warm up the bogs, or freeze the water they put out to create a protective ice layer around the plant tissue.
Ms. Conner notes they also have to keep a close eye on bugs that, in some cases, are nocturnal. “So we not only go out and sweep the bogs during the day, but also between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.”
The tour concludes with a cooking demonstration and cranberry tasting. Guests get a packet of family recipes. A versatile fruit, cranberries are good for everything from appetizers, bread and salads to sauces and desserts.
Even if you think you don’t like cranberries you probably should: Because of their disease-fighting antioxidants, they’re considered a super fruit along the lines of blueberries (which the White farm also grows); sailors in the 19th century ate them to ward off scurvy. They’re also high in vitamin C, fiber-rich and a low-cal treat at only 45 calories per cup — although any caloric benefit is easily negated by all the sugar many recipes require to make them more palatable. You also can eat them out of hand, like Ms. Conner, if you have a toothpick and a bowl of caramel.
Fresh cranberries will last for two months in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag, and they freeze well for up to a year. So now’s the time to stock up so that you can experiment throughout the winter.
This easy whole-berry sauce is sweetened with orange juice. Save the leftovers to mix with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard for a salad dressing.
4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup sugar
4 strips orange zest, plus ½ cup fresh orange juice
Rinse cranberries under cool water, then sort and discard any damaged or bruised cranberries.
Place sugar, orange zest and juice and ½ cup water in medium saucepan; season with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high and stir to dissolve sugar. Add berries.
Reduce to a simmer and cook until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes; berries will pop. Remove from heat and let sauce cool completely at room temperature; it will thicken as it cools. Transfer to a bowl to chill in the refrigerator.
Makes 2 cups sauce.
— Gretchen McKay
Cranberry Brie Tarts
An easy make-ahead appetizer or snack that is pretty enough for entertaining.
¾ cup cranberry sauce or jam, canned or homemade
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
24 wonton wrappers
8-ounce brie round, cut into cubes
Place cranberry sauce in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until hot, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in lemon juice and lemon peel.
Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 24-cup mini-muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray. Center a wonton wrapper over each muffin form, push down with fingers to make a little bowl, with the corners sticking up, and bake for 10 minutes. Place 1 cube of brie in each wonton bowl.
Bake for 5 minutes, or just until cheese melts and wonton tips are beginning to turn brown. Remove from oven; top each cup with 1 teaspoon of cranberry mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 24 appetizers.
— Adapted from Pine Barrens Native Fruits
These are great for garnishing cakes, pies and other holiday treats or simply popping in your mouth when you need a sugary, lip-puckering snack.
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
2 cups fresh cranberries
¾ cup superfine sugar
Combine granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring mixture until sugar dissolves. Bring to a simmer; remove from heat. Stir in cranberries; pour mixture into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to overnight.
Drain cranberries in a colander then place on rack and allow to dry at least 45 minutes (this allows them to get sticky). Place sugar in a shallow dish. Add the cranberries, rolling to coat with sugar. Spread sugared cranberries in a single layer on a baking sheet; let stand at room temperature until dry.
Store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to a week.
— Gretchen McKay
New England Cranberry Duff
This New England spin on the traditional upside-down cake is about as easy as it gets when it comes to dessert or, in my case, breakfast.
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries
⅓ cup pecans, toasted, coarsely chopped
⅓ cup plus ½ cup sugar, divided
1 large egg
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter bottom and halfway up sides of an 8-inch square glass baking dish using 2 tablespoons butter. Spread cranberries evenly over bottom of dish. Sprinkle pecans on top, then sprinkle with ⅓ cup sugar; set aside.
Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat; set aside. Put egg and the remaining ½ cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until pale and thick, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low; gradually beat in flour and then salt. Pour in melted butter in a slow, steady stream, beating until smooth.
Slowly pour batter into pan to cover cranberries. Bake until golden brown and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack 10 minutes. Run a knife around edge to loosen, and invert to unmold onto a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.