People tend to get touchy about any foods deeply tied to holiday tradition, and the humble cranberry sauce is no exception. What seems like a simple matter of fruit and sugar has the potential to set off firestorms of difference of opinion.
My mother, for example, is a purist. She insists on the absolute bare basics: berries, sugar, orange juice. That’s it; no spices, no weird additions, and do not even think about chutney-izing it. His Lordship is a fan of the congealed kind that plops out of a can in one tubular, sliceable mass — much to my initial horror, although I’ve since come to accept that we all have our food quirks and you can’t fight them. You, for all I know, might be of the cabernet and cloves persuasion, or one of those people who blitzes raw berries and whole oranges in the food processor to create a salsa, and that’s okay too.
Me, I’m of a kitchen-sink bent. I have been known to do all manner of messing with my Thanksgiving condimentation. For a few years, I was determined to figure out exactly how much of my spice cabinet I could cram into there. (In case you’re curious, allspice and cranberries get along quite nicely together). Since then, the mania has dampened and I’ve settled on a variant that is neither Mom-simple nor out-of-control wacky, one that is bright and interesting and seasonal and undoubtedly mine.
More than that, it’s me. In this one ruby concoction is a snapshot of who I am. Each component offers a fragment of my story and a hint about my experiences and my tastes: cranberries for the bog obsession I developed in my New England years and quinces for my childhood, orange for my citrus addiction, ginger for all the Asian influences in my California upbringing and adult life, and vanilla bean for my food snobbery. It all works together and, unlike my earlier spicy pyrotechnics, won’t clash with your turkey. It’s also versatile enough to spoon over ice cream or use in my favorite post-Thanksgiving leftover application: grilled cheese sandwiches with cranberry sauce.
You’re welcome to try my story, or stick with your own. Either way, I wish you a rich and vibrant start to your holiday season.
(Unless you’re Canadian, in which case keep up the good work!)
Cranberry Sauce with Quince, Pear and Vanilla
Makes 4 cups
One 12-ounce bag cranberries
2 fresh quinces, peeled, cored and diced OR 1/2 cup quince jam
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced
1 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of one orange
Juice of one orange, plus enough water to make 1 cup
1 pinkie-sized knob of ginger, grated (approximately 2 teaspoons)
1/2 vanilla bean, split
Pinch of salt
Pick over the cranberries and remove any squishy ones.
If using quince jam, set aside for later addition. Combine all (remaining) ingredients in a saucepan.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until the cranberries have popped and the quinces and pears are tender. Remove from heat and let cool. If using quince jam, stir into the sauce as soon as it comes off the heat.
Cover and refrigerate or freeze until needed.
Dumping the cranberries into a large bowl of cold water will help you sort them, since the really squishy ones will sink to the bottom while the good or mostly-good ones will float on the surface. I then scoop small handfuls of the floating berries and run them between my fingers to catch the partially-squishy ones.
If you can find fresh quinces, they are absolutely worth buying, but some waste is inevitable because of the toughness of the peel and core. If necessary, use a paring knife instead of a peeler, and slice as close as you can to the core without cutting into it to get as much of the fruit as possible.
If you can’t find fresh quinces, quince jam or paste can frequently be found at Latin American, Indian, Pakistani, Greek and Middle Eastern groceries.
Since this makes a large amount of sauce and we’re a small household even with holiday guests, I usually freeze half the batch for Christmas. It will keep perfectly well for even longer than that month in the freezer, and that’s one less thing to do when you’re up to your eyeballs in holiday cookie baking and gift wrapping.