“The wind proving favourable, we proceeded to Cranberry Lake, so called from the great quantities of cranberries growing in the swamps …. the prospect of a plentiful supply of fish, rice and cranberries are winter comforts of too great consequence to be slighted.”
—John Long, 1791 Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader
From refreshing cocktails to savory salsas and sophisticated desserts, cranberries have made a big splash in recent years. Americans eat more than 600 million pounds of the little red berries, either fresh or as juice, each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And although most people don’t think of the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) as an herb, this Native American gem has been a source of food, dye and medicine for centuries. Native people mixed cranberries with dried deer meat to make pemmican, a long-lasting food carried on hunting trips, and also used the plant to treat wounds and to dye blankets. American colonists quickly adopted the cranberry themselves, calling it “craneberry” for the flowers’ resemblance to the head and bill of a crane.
Today, no table is complete without a dish of tangy, ruby-red cranberry sauce during the holiday season. But this versatile fruiting herb offers so many tasty possibilities; why not use it to add sparkle and good health to foods year-round? To ensure a steady supply, stock up now when cranberries are plentiful (simply freeze the bags for up to one year) … or plan to plant your own cranberry cache.
In the wild, cranberry plants grow in acidic soil, usually in a marsh or bog. The semi-evergreen vines root along runners, which send up 6- to 18-inch fruiting shoots. Flowers form on the 1-year-old shoots and, if pollination is good, red berry fruits grow and mature by autumn.
But you don’t need a bog to grow cranberries yourself. Like their relative the blueberry, cranberries thrive in a sunny site with loose, acidic (4.5 to 5.5 pH) soil. If your soil is not naturally acidic, mix moist sphagnum peat moss (or shredded pine bark) and leaf compost into the top 8 inches before you plant. Or grow the plants in a large container, where you can tailor the soil to suit the plants’ needs. They need little or no fertilizer—don’t use manure, which is high in salts.
Keep the plants well watered (if using tap water, be sure the pH is 5.5 or below) throughout the growing season and into fall, when buds form for the following year. In November, mulch the plants with leaves or pine needles; remove the mulch when shoots begin to grow the following spring. Every other spring, add a ½-inch layer of sand to the bed to encourage root growth and to block weeds.
At my home in New Jersey, I’ve planted more than a dozen cranberry plants along a path in our wildflower garden. Until my plants begin bearing (about three years), I’ll continue to buy bags of these gems each autumn to freeze and use in a multitude of ways all year long.
Versatile cranberries are easy to work into your daily diet. The tangy sauce is a natural for the holiday dinner table, but why stop there? With its combination of sweet-tart flavors, cranberry sauce makes a perfect partner for pancakes, waffles and even ice cream. It also can serve as the basis for a luscious dressing when olive oil, honey and lemon juice are added.
To make basic cranberry sauce, cook 4 cups of cranberries and 1 cup of orange juice or water over medium heat in a wide-bottomed saucepan until cranberry skins begin to pop. Stir in 1 ½ to 2 cups of sugar, according to taste, until it dissolves. The more sugar used, the more firm the sauce will be. For additional flavor, add chopped apples, nuts, dried figs, raisins or orange pieces. Chill sauce before serving.
To make sugar-free cranberry sauce, bring 1 cup water to a boil, then stir in 1 package (3 ounces) of orange or cranberry sugar-free gelatin. Add 1/2 cup of cold water and 2 cups of chopped cranberries. Crush in a blender. Pour the mixture into a bowl or mold, then stir in chopped fruits or nuts and chill.
Like many other herbs and fruits, cranberries also make delightful additions to vinegar, wine and vodka, imparting a brilliant ruby color and tantalizing flavor. Use cranberry vinegar and oil to make a delicious salad dressing for a mix of crisp greens, fresh orange slices, walnuts and dried cranberries. Serve cranberry-infused liqueurs chilled or add them to recipes, such as my Cranberry Cake.
Cranberry Chicken Salad
Makes 8 to 12 servings
Another member of our herb society unit makes delicious tea sandwiches using thin wheat bread and a filling of this salad, which is my own recipe. For a decorative topping, she often cuts a slice of firm cranberry sauce with a small cookie cutter into appropriate shapes for the season. I loved the small cranberry-sauce hearts that topped her sandwiches for a Valentine tea last year. Make these little jewels part of your own holiday tradition this year.
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
1½ cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped celery
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
4 cups of chopped, cooked chicken breast
½ cup freshly chopped parsley
Mix together dressing ingredients. Adjust vinegar, sugar and salt to suit your taste. Blend in dried cranberries, celery, water chestnuts, onion and nuts. Add chopped chicken and mix well; sprinkle with parsley. Chill 1 hour. Garnish with dried berries or slices of cranberry sauce cut into seasonal shapes.
’s Cranberry Cake
Makes 8 to 12 servings
Cranberry liqueur and fruit give this moist holiday cake a double shot of flavor. If you do not have cranberry liqueur, substitute any other fruit liqueur or brandy. Do not substitute other fats for the butter, however. If you use all-purpose flour rather than cake flour, reduce the total amount by 1/4 cup.
1¾ cups sugar
3 sticks butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon brandy extract
½ teaspoon rum extract
3 tablespoons cranberry liqueur
3½ cups cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon mace
1 cup sour cream
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a large tube pan. In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add vanilla, brandy, rum and cranberry flavorings and beat well. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and mace. Add to creamed mixture, alternating with sour cream, beating after each addition. Gently fold in berries and nuts.
Pour into prepared pan and bake 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until a cake tester or toothpick can be inserted in the middle of the cake and comes out clean. Cool on a rack 10 to 15 minutes, then remove from pan. Cool about 30 minutes longer, then top with Cranberry Glaze.
1 stick of butter, room temperature
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons cranberry liqueur (or orange juice)
Small amount of milk
Mix together butter, sugar and liqueur. Add just enough milk to make glaze easy to apply. Spoon or pour over warm cake, allowing glaze to drip down over the sides. (Cake should not be too hot, or glaze will melt away.)
Lorraine Kiefer is owner of Triple Oaks Nursery, Florist and Herb Garden (
) in Franklinville, New Jersey. She is a member of the South Jersey Unit of the Herb Society of America.