Covet the cranberry at Christmas

If there is one berry we associate with Christmas it has to be cranberries. Maybe it’s because they have been on my mind that I am suddenly coming across so many recipes, sweet and savoury that call for the little fleshy fruit in all its various forms; fresh, dried and frozen. For some reason I believe cranberries to be a very adult fruit as they were never on my radar as a child. The gravy with the turkey on Christmas day always interested me more than the obligatory little silver bowl of jewel coloured cranberry sauce that sat in the middle of the table. With its dainty little spoon jauntily sticking out, my child’s brain was suspicious of putting ‘jam’ on my meat! Irish children of the 1970s were still largely unschooled in the pleasures of sweet and sour or sweet and savoury as food partners. Our love affair with all things Asian, Eastern and European means today’s children are much more open to such things.

If there is one berry we associate with Christmas it has to be cranberries. Maybe it’s because they have been on my mind that I am suddenly coming across so many recipes, sweet and savoury that call for the little fleshy fruit in all its various forms; fresh, dried and frozen. For some reason I believe cranberries to be a very adult fruit as they were never on my radar as a child. The gravy with the turkey on Christmas day always interested me more than the obligatory little silver bowl of jewel coloured cranberry sauce that sat in the middle of the table. With its dainty little spoon jauntily sticking out, my child’s brain was suspicious of putting ‘jam’ on my meat! Irish children of the 1970s were still largely unschooled in the pleasures of sweet and sour or sweet and savoury as food partners. Our love affair with all things Asian, Eastern and European means today’s children are much more open to such things.

The old English name for the cranberry is ‘fenberry’. I came across the word ‘fenberry’ in a very old cook book some time ago and hadn’t a clue what it was. ‘Fen’ is another word for marsh and cranberries were commonly found in marsh lands, hence the name. Being a winter berry, cranberries have been eaten by Arctic populations for thousands of years and are still a very popular fruit for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. Native Americans are believed to have been the first people to use cranberries as a source of food. Legend has it that they introduced the cranberry to European settlers in the 1600s and they incorporated the berry into their traditional Thanksgiving feast – hence the popularity of cranberry sauce with turkey.

Unlike the blueberry, blackberry or raspberry, cranberries are tart to the taste and so are rarely eaten raw yet they are wonderful when combined in baked treats such as scones, cakes and muffins. Indeed I have perfected a walnut and cranberry biscuit (I just find it hard to use the word cookie although my children seem to have no issue with it at all!) I use dried cranberries readily available in most supermarkets these days. They add a lovely chewy dimension and, of course, the lovely red colouring has an added appeal. They are simple to make and earn me serious brownie points with everyone when a batch is whipped up. The kids adore making them with me and it’s a glorious way to spend some time with them.

Moving away from baked goods I would also encourage you to use dried cranberries in winter stews and casseroles. Dried cranberries have more sugar than fresh and so when added to a red wine based chicken casserole they add a really lovely fruity dimension. They serve to take that edginess off the alcohol. A little chef-y tip: if you are using alcohol such as stout, ale or wine in a stew or casserole and on the final tasting you feel it’s a little sharp just add a teaspoon of cranberry sauce and it will smooth out those edges very quickly. Dried cranberries also offer a nice change for kids who enjoy raisins in their lunchbox. The texture is the same but the taste is enjoyably different. Admittedly they are more expensive than raisins but nice for a change the odd time.

While traditionally we know that cranberries work with turkey and chicken I also think they go very well with pork. Pork, cranberry and herb stuffing is a favourite.

I try and use fresh and dried cranberries for mine. You would use 2 - 3 ounces of fresh cranberries along with half the amount of dried cranberries for every pound of pork sausage meat. Just combine them with breadcrumbs, a little parsley, sage and thyme, a finely chopped onion and 2 finely chopped celery sticks. A large egg will bind the whole lot together and rather than stuffing it into anything you could just roll them into balls and cook them in a hot oven for about 25 minutes. Alternatively you could ask your butcher to de bone a chicken and lay this stuffing down the centre, then stitch the chicken up again and roast. It really makes the chicken go a little further and it feels so much richer. You could make a cranberry, red wine and mushroom jus to pour over it just to finish it off. This dish has a rich feel to it and yet is very economical when you think it is just chicken and sausage meat. This would also work as a pork stuffing.

Traditional cranberry sauce is also a great store cupboard item particularly over Christmas. It makes great emergency gifts and works really well with cold turkey and leftovers. After Christmas day make a sauce with a little crème fraiche and chicken stock. Add in some chopped leftover turkey and ham. Line a bun tin (or a large pie dish) with some pastry, fill with the cream filling and top with cranberry sauce before putting on a pastry lid and baking. If you make little ones they are a great canapé, lunch or starter. I find frozen cranberries are the easiest to get and the most convenient for cranberry sauce. Just make sure to thaw them before making it.

Finally if you want to really impress Smoked Turkey Cigars create a wow factor every time. All you need are some sliced smoked turkey breast, pork cranberry and herb stuffing, cranberry sauce and some filo pastry. Simply spread a slice of smoked turkey with some cranberry sauce, then line the centre with some stuffing and roll up the turkey slice like a cigar. Next lay out a filo sheet and brush with some melted butter, then lay another sheet on the top add your turkey cigar and roll the whole lot together, tucking the pastry neatly at the ends. You should make about 12 cigars from 24 sheets of shop bought filo pastry. Line them up on a baking sheet, brush them all with melted butter and bake them in the oven at 190°C for about 25 minutes. Serve them hot.

Don’t overlook the cranberry this year and just know that it really can elevate a dish to something very special.