Native Food: Cooking With the Crimson-Colored Cranberry
As the idiom says, "There is nothing new under the sun." But nature's most simple edibles can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways. Take the cranberry, for example. This small, bouncy, perky berry, which grows in areas known as "bogs" on short evergreen perennial shrubs, tastes tart when eaten raw. But cooking cranberries mellows their taste, especially when mixed with a natural sweetener. Hence, cranberries taste delicious in pastries or as glazes on meats—think cranberry-rubbed turkey, venison with cranberry chutney, or wild boar in cranberry-wine sauce.
This deep-red fruit has a rich history, especially among the Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the outer islands, who have nurtured them for eons. Now cranberries are a major industrial crop, along with two other totally Native fruits grown commercially in North America: blueberries and strawberries—the original finger foods. Cranberries are a time-honored staple in trail mix and pemmican, also known as "jerky," in which animal fats, nuts and berries of various sorts are pounded into preserved meats—typically buffalo, venison (including elk, deer and moose) or small game like rabbit or squirrel. Pemmican is a true example of traditional American Indian “fast food”—a far cry from modern America's oil-drenched burgers and fries. Cranberries, rather, are loaded with anthocyanins, which are responsible for their vibrant red pigment and deliver antioxidants that may slow aging and reduce inflammation.
Beyond nutrition, cranberries offer medicinal uses. Our ancestors ground them into a paste to fight wound infections, treated by high levels of acidity and vitamin C. Plus, the indigenous fruit contains compounds that help block bacteria—giving credence to the common belief that drinking cranberry juice can help prevent urinary tract infections.
Fresh cranberries are primarily available in the cool fall months, although they can be purchased year-round in dried form, often called craisins, or crushed in sauces and juices. Have fun and experiment with the versatile cranberry—toss them in corn breads, apple pie or cake batters. Take inspiration from Native chefs and restaurants, like Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery. The Osage family-owned restaurant in Denver, Colorado makes a corn salsa with cranberries that has earned praise on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Still, my all-time personal favorite way to enjoy them is in cranberry chutney.
Cranberry “Sassamanesh” Chutney
3 cups cranberries
12 apples, firm, cored
2 sweet onions, sliced
1 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons ground ginger
¾ cup mint leaves, fine chopped
2 ounces chili peppers
4 cups apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
1 pound dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour dissolved in ¼ cup water
You will need a heavy stainless steel pot. Combine all ingredients except the cranberries and flour mixture. Cook apples, onions, raisins, ginger, mint, chili pepper, vinegar, salt and brown sugar over very low heat for about a half hour. Now, add the cranberries and flour/water mixture and simmer 5-10 minutes to allow berries to pop and chutney to thicken. This will yield about 4 pints. Allow the mixture to blend and thicken overnight. *Pack your chutney into jelly jars. They make great gifts this way, too. . . .
Cranberries make for finger-licking desserts during the blustering fall season as well:
preheat oven to 375 degrees 1 cup flour
½ cup quick cooking rolled oats
3 tablespoons sugar (brown preferred) or equivalent substitute
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chilled sweet butter, cut in pieces
½ or more cup Craisins (dried cranberries)
1 egg ¼ cup milk, more if needed
Using a food processor, mix the oats, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pulse to blend. Put the butter on top and pulse again a few times. Add cranberries and pulse once to mix them in. Beat the egg with the milk in a small glass bowl and pour into processor feeding tube until dough sticks together, add more milk if dough is too dry to stick together. Put dough on an ungreased cookie sheet and flatten down to a large circle. Cut into 12 pieces, leaving about an inch between them. Sprinkle with a little more sugar if desired. Bake about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
2 cups fresh whole cranberries
1 cup cranberry juice cocktail
1 cup sugar (or substitute equivalent)
¼ cup flour
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of cinnamon
Grease a 9-inch pie pan. Cook the cranberries in a large non-reactive saucepan for 5 minutes over medium heat. Remove cranberries and set them aside. Boil down liquid to ¼ cup remaining. Use a blender or food processor to combine the eggs, sugar, flour, milk, cream and vanilla. Add the cranberry liquid to form a custard. Spread the slightly cooled cranberries on the bottom of the greased pie pan. Pour custard mixture over the berries and sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake in the center of the oven until golden and puffed, about 40-45 minutes. Let cool and serve warm or at room temperature.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.