Our Thanksgiving feast this year will include lots of local food -- sweet potatoes, potatoes, eggs, milk -- and quite a few ingredients straight from our garden -- butternut squash, pumpkin, celery, garlic, collards, dried sage and thyme, along with some soup stock we put away over the summer which we'll use for making gravy and dressing. But at least one thing on the table will be made from ingredients that come from far, far away: the cranberry sauce.
Fresh, whole cranberries are a delicious indulgence--a special treat that I cook up once a year in late November.
I remember exactly when I first made fresh cranberry sauce. It was November of 1999 and I was preparing food for my family's Thanksgiving meal. I was lucky enough to come across fresh cranberries and great advice about what to do with them all in one place.
When I first moved back to Western North Carolina almost ten years ago, I went to work at the French Broad Food Co-op, a long-standing institution and a hub of food community, food traditions, food activism, and social change networks in Western NC. I love the FBFC, and am so grateful for the role it has played for more than thirty years in building community, creating a market for healthy, local, and organic foods, and connecting people who care about food, health, and community. I met many of my first friends in Asheville through the Co-op, ended up serving on the Board for a few years, have shopped at farmers markets in the Co-op's parking lot hundreds of times by now, and have benefited from connection with the Co-op in far too many ways to count. One tangible benefit is this cranberry sauce.
That first fall that I lived in Asheville, just before Thanksgiving, the Co-op had a big bin of fresh cranberries in bulk in the produce section. They were so beautiful, but what to do with them? Next to bountiful pile of ruby-colored berries was a basket holding slips of paper -- copies of Ellie's Cranberry Sauce recipe.
Ellie is one of the original founding members of the Co-op and still cooks for and coordinates the FBFC kitchen and deli. She is definitely a food elder in the community, someone who has been preparing, sharing, and promoting healthy food for many years, sharing and cultivating food traditions across generations here in the Asheville area.
I have long-since lost that slip of paper-- it's probably somewhere in a bag or box with other miscellaneous slips of paper somewhere. But I learned two things from the recipe. One: how easy it is to make really delicious whole cranberry sauce--what a revelation! And two: the extra deliciousness that is possible with one signature ingredient -- crystallized ginger.
Ever since that first foray into cranberries inspired by Ellie's recipe, I've made the brilliant scarlet sauce at Thanksgiving time every year. Now I make a sauce loosely based on the classic and simple Joy of Cooking recipe, but substituting Ellie's signature crystallized ginger for half of the sugar.
Here's the recipe:
Ginger Cranberry Sauce a la Ellie
1 pound fresh cranberries
2 cups water or 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup raw sugar
1 cup minced crystallized ginger
1 cup walnuts (optional)
Orange slices and orange zest (optional)
- Wash and pick through the cranberries, removing any stems and rotted or bruised berries.
- Finely mince the crystallized ginger.
- Mix water and sugar in a saucepan big enough to hold all of the cranberries. Bring the water and sugar mix to a boil; boil the syrup for 5 minutes.
- Add the cranberries and the chopped ginger. Stir very lightly, just to incorporate everything into the syrup.
- Cook uncovered very gently without stirring until the berries are soft and you have a thick sauce. DON'T overcook the cranberries. If they start to pop and burst, it's just past time to stop cooking.
- Chill in a mold, or just serve in a bowl. Garnish with orange slices and orange zest.
- Eat at your leisure throughout late November and December. Keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator.
The finished sauce, ready to chill
All in all, this is a sauce of ingredients that I consider exotic, and therefore a rare and decadent indulgence. None of the ingredients --sugar, cranberries, and ginger--can be grown around here, though I am still holding out hope that we might have some success with highbush cranberries, and maybe grow some ginger in the greenhouse. If you add oranges, you up the exotic (non-local) ante even more.
This is all just to say it's a special treat, a treat that takes me out of ordinary time. Its glassy, ruby gorgeousness, the texture of silky, sticky, and plump cranberries that burst in your mouth, and the spicy-sweet tartness are an incredible culinary experience. It looks like stained glass on the Thanksgiving table, and it is a perfect complement to the savory flavors of traditional Thanksgiving fare.
I remember how amazed I was to discover that this luscious and beautiful treat was so simple (just 3 essential ingredients), so quick, and so easy. I usually make a big batch the day before Thanksgiving. I use a pound or two of cranberries and keep whatever is left after Thanksgiving to pile on Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches, to snack on throughout December, and to serve the last of for Solstice and Christmas feasts.
Today I'm giving thanks for all of those who have stewarded and shared food traditions down through the ages. And especially I am thankful for my "food elders" who have taught me about growing, preserving, and preparing food to nurture and sustain our bodies and souls. I am grateful for all of those who have shared food, who worked to ensure that all are fed, and who have cultivated community with food traditions old and new. And for all of those who work growing food to nourish our bodies and care for the earth, I'm giving thanks.
With profound gratitude: Happy Thanksgiving!