Growing up, cranberry sauce was one of the first things my mother tossed together on Thanksgiving morning, quickly combining a bag of fresh cranberries in a pot with a few cups of water and sugar. The sauce would bubble and pop until it was ready to be poured into the serving dish on our dining table to cool and wait for the other, more complicated, dishes to join it much later the same day.
Once I was tall enough to reach the stove, cranberry sauce duties were delegated my way and I would take much pride in the stirring and careful measurement of water and sugar. When the guests arrived, I’d eagerly offer them a serving of MY cranberry sauce to accompany the rest of the food on their plates. The fresh sauce was always wonderful, simultaneously tart and sweet, with a bit of burst from the whole berries. It was, I assumed, what everyone else was eating along with their Thanksgiving turkey.
It wasn’t until I was in Jr. High School that my parents brought my brother and me along on a volunteer trip to a soup kitchen near Times Square. It was just before Thanksgiving so were were serving turkey and all the fixings to the many homeless men and women who came through the hall that afternoon. My mom and I wore matching oversized Mondrian-patterned sweater and leggings (ahh, the 90s!), and I stuck close to her, simultaneously terrified of and curious about the scruffy-looking men who shouted at us for seconds. In the kitchen, a woman worked quickly with an electric can opener removing the tops of giant tins of jellied purple substance.
“What is that stuff?” I asked my mom as I watched the lady slice it into thick can-shaped circles that she layered onto an aluminum tray, refusing to believe her when she told me it was cranberry sauce. I had a difficult time reconciling the congealed maroon discs with the brilliant bubbly sauce I was so used to eating.
As always seems to happen when you first learn a word or see a color, I soon started to notice the cans everywhere—on television and in the lower shelves of the grocery store. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would eat something so ugly when the real version was so simple and no more expensive. The homeless people may not have had a choice—though they certainly deserved better—but I still don’t really understand why people would pick the illusory convenience of a can over the very real convenience (because it’s so easy!) of a fresh and homemade cranberry sauce.
If you read this blog, then I have no doubt that you agree with me on the fresh vs. canned debate (is it even a debate?), but I'd also love to encourage you to mix up the classic sauce this year.
For the past several years I’ve been experimenting with adding different flavors to my basic sauce recipe, and have recently settled on a new favorite: a lovely spicy-sweet combination of fresh ginger, citrus, and cinnamon that I love so much I admit to eating it by the spoonful while preparing the rest of the meal. And while cleaning up afterward. And while writing this blog post.
Instead of water, I used a combination of apple cider and orange juice, and at the end, I added a quick splash of 20-year strawberry-balsamic vinegar to round out the flavors (you can use your favorite flavored or plain balsamic for this). This sauce particularly complements my smoky Latin-style turkey recipe, but would work just as well with your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.
This sauce is the quickest thing to throw together and can be made well in advance of the big day so you won’t have to worry about freeing up one of the burners. It keeps in the fridge and can be served cold, hot, or room temperature. Leftovers are wonderful with roasted pork tenderloin or even over a simple flourless chocolate cake! I'm actually toying with the idea of tucking a few spoonfuls into a batch of buttery puff pastry, just to see what happens...
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Spiced Cranberry Orange Sauce
Notes of ginger, orange, and cinnamon elevate this Thanksgiving side dish beyond the ordinary.
3 cups apple cider
1 1/4 cup orange juice
1 cup sugar
Peel of one orange, cut into large strips
2 inches of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced thickly
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound fresh cranberries
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar (a raspberry, fig, or strawberry balsamic vinegar would work particularly well here)
In a medium saucepan, combine the apple cider, orange juice, and sugar and heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange peel, ginger, and cinnamon stick and let simmer for 10 minutes until reduced by a third.
Add the cranberries and stir. Let simmer over medium low heat for another 15-20 minutes until the berries burst and the sauce thickens slightly.
Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar. Let cool before serving. Can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container.