Among only a few native North American fruits cultivated commercially in the modern era, cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) stand out as a culinary star of the holiday feasting season.
But their season doesn’t last long. Harvested from late September through October, the fresh fruit is only available through Christmas. I like to pick up several bags of fresh berries, pop them into appropriate containers and freeze them to use all winter.
Only about 15 percent of the crop is marketed as fresh berries—the rest gets processed into juice, sauce, and other products.
Native Americans used cranberries for food, dyes, and medicine, and introduced the European settlers to the tart, healthful berries.
Some tribes pounded dried cranberries with strips of dried meat, and mixed them with animal fat into a nutritious, long-lasting, high-energy food called pemmican. Tucked into animal-hide pouches, pemmican saw both native American and European through their long winter treks into the woods and back. The tradition survives today in products such as the Tanka bars made by the Oglala Lakota tribe.
You’ve probably seen popular articles pitching cranberries as a “superfood.” Although the fresh berries provide a good source of fiber and modest amounts of vitamin C and minerals, their superfood status derives from their abundance of health-promoting phytocompounds—chemicals manufactured by plants for their own defense. These include anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant compounds.
Many women swear by (powdered) cranberry supplements to prevent recurrent urinary-tract infections (UTIs). Research demonstrates that one of the berry’s unique phytocompounds, a proanthocyanidin, may prevent bacteria from attaching to the cells lining the urinary tract, thus preventing infection or reinfection in people who are susceptible.
A similar hypothesis suggests that cranberry products may help prevent ulcers by preventing the bacteria that cause some ulcers from attaching to the walls of the stomach.
Researchers caution that while cranberries may help prevent infections and boost your immune system, they don’t treat infections. If you suspect you have a UTI, or if you have stomach pains, see a doctor.
Medical researchers have also begun investigating the potential of the berries for preventing or treating heart disease, various forms of cancer, oral and gastrointestinal disorders, and viral diseases.
Researchers suggest that the “mixed outcomes” that have so far emerged from clinical studies involving cranberry products probably result from using a mishmash of products whose “bioactive” constituents weren’t well characterized or standardized, that were delivered in wildly different dosing regimens, or that didn’t have any way to measure how well the test subjects adhered to the protocol. More research will certainly evolve, given the powerful array of potential medicines cranberry’s chemistry promises.
Always consult with your health care professional before taking cranberry (or any herb) for medicinal purposes. Like most plant medicines, cranberries may interact with other drugs you may be taking.
Good to eat
Given the mouth-puckering tartness of the berries, most juices and prepared cranberry products, as well as cranberry recipes for home preparation, call for large quantities of sweeteners. Try stewing fresh berries into a relish with pears, apples or apple butter, or chopped dates or dried apricots. If the relish is still too sour, add a little sweetener of choice.
Beets and cranberries, the root and fruit of the fall season, pair well together in soups, sauces, relishes, and chutneys.
Here’s a beautiful relish that combines the two:
2 cups fresh cranberries
2 large beets, cooked, peeled, and chopped
⅔ cup frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
salt to taste
Bring cranberries and apple juice to a boil. Simmer until cranberries pop. Add finely chopped beets and salt.
Alternatively, simmer one or two chopped apples or pears in ¾ cup of apple cider until fruit is soft; adding cranberries and continue simmering until they pop. Then stir in beets and salt. If the mixture isn’t quite sweet enough, add a tablespoon or two of your favorite sweetener.
Finally, here’s a simple and stunning cranberry-beet borscht to warm up your winter nights.