One Saucy Berry
Chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier in their garden
As rich in nutrients as it is in flavor, the potent cranberry is worth giving thanks for all winter long.Cranberries bounce into our kitchens every Thanksgiving, only to fade into obscurity the moment the last turkey sandwich is consumed. Whereas fruits like blueberries and bananas take up residence in our lives for the better part of the year, cranberries come and go like a festival mascot.
The cranberry itself is partly to blame for its failure to assimilate into our daily diets. It's tart. Even the bracing grapefruit has three times as much sugar as acidity; with the cranberry, the ratio is roughly one-to-one. Eat a fresh cranberry plain and your senses seize up for a moment, unable to focus on anything but its rude flavor. Once you get over the shock, however, you'll notice remarkable aromatic notes—a cinnamon-like warmth combined with piney, woodsy astringency and vibrant fruitiness. Add a little sugar, and cranberries' complexity blossoms to life, allowing them to complement all kinds of savory dishes—grilled meats, cheese courses, roasted fall vegetables, and bitter salad greens. At Arrows restaurant, in Ogunquit, Maine, owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier have been experimenting with the berries for eight years, ever since their general manager at the time, Danielle Johnson, mentioned the pretty, half-wild little bog on her fifth-generation family farm. The chefs, whose creations are featured on these pages, have paired the cranberries with ingredients from around the world, including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cognac, and mint. "Our best dishes are accidental, based on whatever's in season at the same time," says Gaier, who, with Frasier and one of the waitstaff, started a garden at Arrows 18 years ago to supply the kitchen with fresh, unusual herbs and produce.
These days you don't need friends with bogs to play around with fresh cranberries. More farmers in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada are growing them on a small scale and dry-harvesting them come fall, which results in the firm, whole berries you can buy at the grocery store, whether fresh or frozen. (Ninety-five percent of all cranberries are still wet-harvested, a process that requires flooding the bogs with water, shaking the bushes, and scooping up the fruit that floats to the surface. It results in more perishable berries that are used mainly in juices and jellies.)
When you do find yourself with an extra bag of ripe, whole cranberries, relax. Let the holidays come and go. Then, one winter morning when you wake up hungry, fix yourself a batch of cranberry French toast. A few weeks later, try cranberry drunken chicken. Because, unlike the holiday that made them famous, cranberries last. Even fresh, organic ones will keep for up to two months in your refrigerator. The same antimicrobial compounds that help your tissues shed germs when you drink cranberry juice also protect the berries from deterioration. Moreover, benzoic acid, found naturally in cranberries, is a preservative now commonly added to processed foods. And cranberries can help the rest of your body stay healthy, too; they are startlingly high in vitamin C and antioxidants, especially anthocyanins, which may inhibit the development of atherosclerosis and cancer, among other things.
So keep a stash of this radiant fruit in your fridge; they may be the best remedy yet for winter's blahs. And next year, when Thanksgiving rolls around again, you can smile to yourself, knowing that cranberry season is just beginning.
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Photo: Ditte Isager