The Weekend Dish: Relish cranberries for Thanksgiving
The Weekend Dish
Thanksgiving means many things to many people. It can be bitter and sweet. I remember what I was taught in elementary school. It was a charming tale of friendship and cooperation.
In first grade, my class dressed up as Plymouth Pilgrims and their Native American besties. I made a headdress out of construction paper with paper feathers. I have a picture of myself with a big grin and corn stuck in my teeth, sitting next to my Pilgrim pal with stuffing on his face.
Like many things in this world of ours, the real story is much more complicated.
The Pilgrims did indeed have a grand feast to celebrate their first harvest in the New World in 1621. Over 90 Indians joined 53 pilgrims to give thanks for their bounty. One famous Indian, Squanto, taught the Pilgrims how to farm and catch eels when they were on the verge of starvation.
Sadly, the story does not end there, and the friendly relations turned sour shortly after that. The new arrivals from Europe would not continue to coexist with the Native Americans peacefully. Some people consider Thanksgiving Day to be a national day of mourning since, to them, it ignores the genocide of Native Americans. For those folks, this day is a bitter remembrance of oppressed or slaughtered ancestors.
History has many dimensions. Depending on how you look at it, this is an American story of pride or pain, but millions of us still celebrate it.
We certainly live in a dark world, but every single one of us can think of things to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is a special day for me. I spend precious time with my family and friends over food and wine. I have warm, golden memories of this holiday with a crackling fire and my pugs at my feet.
Thanksgiving is never complete without cranberry sauce. It is a necessity. I never understood how it can retain its shape so perfectly when plopped in a dish, but I always loved the stuff. I will even eat it straight out of the can any time of year. Cranberries are about as exciting as cranberries can be, because they also have direct connection Thanksgiving and the history of this land.
Cranberries were first cultivated in North America by the Algonquian nation in New England. They thrived in certain latitudes and environs and were a staple food for some tribes. With guidance from the local native tribes, Pilgrims incorporated them into their cooking. It is very likely cranberries were served in some form at the first Thanksgiving.
There are also some misconceptions about cranberries from all those cranberry juice commercials. Cranberries are not, in fact, grown underwater. Instead, they bud on long vines that are flooded every autumn. Flooding helps to loosen the berries from the vine. They do look pretty fun to harvest, however.
These small red berries are somewhat bitter on their own, but sugar makes them better. In fact, sugar makes everything better. Cranberries also complement dry turkey or can be served as a delicious side dish or dessert. From can-shaped sauce to chunky relish, cranberries are a Thanksgiving tradition.
Thanksgiving can also be insane. Between all of the cooking, drinking and dodging political opinions, there is just so much to do. To help you have it all, I have concocted a super easy dish that will make people think you are a chef — even if you are drunk and doing everything at the last minute. And yes, the main ingredient is cranberries.
This mint cranberry walnut relish takes less than 15 minutes to make, and it always disappears every Thanksgiving. I take that as a success, even if the turkey turns out a little dry.
The only essential ingredients to this relish are cranberries, walnuts, mint and turbinado sugar. Simply blend together ingredients in a food processor or blender, and you’re done. Frozen cranberries work well with this recipe too. It is bitter, sweet, nutty, and satisfying, which describes so many of us this time of year.
There are also so many variations of this relish to experiment with. For the recipe listed below, I added half of a pomegranate. At other times, I have been known to add oranges or raspberries. I am a rebel like that. But the ultimate choice of another fruit is entirely up to you. A squeeze of lemon or lime could also brighten the flavor of the relish.
For extra kicks, I like to add cinnamon if I’m in that kind of mood. It is such a fail-safe recipe that you aren’t bound to mess it up. This can be something to be thankful for when you already have so much on your plate.
Cranberries and Thanksgiving go together like mashed potatoes and gravy, or consumerism and Christmas. They are both uniquely American and sometimes misinterpreted. This bitter little fruit can be one of the sweetest parts of Thanksgiving dinners, and it helped sustain our ancestors and the people who lived here even before them.
I wouldn’t wear a paper headdress anymore because of cultural appropriation. Still, Thanksgiving has its own meaning as a tradition to me. I still love the basic trappings, including turkey, stuffing, biscuits, mashed potatoes, pies and, yes, cranberries. It’s even better to be able to share these things with those I love.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever you believe, I hope you have something to be thankful for. Give this day its true namesake meaning. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Serves two to four people
1 cup cranberries
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1 cup walnuts
Sprig of mint
Pinch of cinnamon
- Rinse fresh cranberries and dry. Frozen berries are excellent, too.
- In a food processor or blender, add cranberries, walnuts, mint and cinnamon. Optional: Add an additional half-to-full cup of the fruit of your choice. Some options include pomegranate, oranges, grapefruit, pineapple or raspberries.
- Thoroughly blend ingredients. This can be chunky or finely blended, depending upon your own preferences. Add sugar and blend a bit more.
- Serve immediately. Garnish with whole or sliced cranberries, walnuts and mint.
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