Appetites: Take lowly cranberry to new heights this Thanksgiving

Cranberry ice cubes
A simple holiday entertaining idea from the Heavy Table's James Norton is to freeze fresh cranberries in ice cubes. Add cranberries to half-full ice cube trays and then top them off once they're frozen.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Take a moment to consider a delicacy that has an important place on the Thanksgiving table and throughout the holiday season: the lowly cranberry.

The cranberry's appeal goes well beyond sauce and it just so happens to have a locavore connection.

James Norton from the Heavy Table tells us a little about the local connection to cranberries.

Norton: Wisconsin is the single biggest producer of cranberries in the U.S., producing 60 percent of the nation's crop. It's also the state's number one fruit crop in terms of acreage and value. I've been down to the Wetherby Cranberry Company (near Warrens, Wis.) a couple of times and enjoyed watching the flowers develop in spring and the harvest take place in early autumn.

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The berries are harvested by flooding sunken beds containing the plants and then agitating the plants to float the berries up to the surface, where they can be corralled and skimmed off. Inasmuch as a fruit harvest can be dramatic, I think the cranberry harvest really qualifies. It's sort of extreme agriculture.

MPR News: What makes the fruit so versatile?

Norton: The beauty of cranberries is that they act like discrete, easily measurable units of pure tartness. Add them to anything sweet, like an apple pie or blueberry cobbler, and they add depth and contrast. Adding just a few cranberries to an otherwise sweet recipe can be the difference between a good dish and a great one.

The more you play with them and learn about their potency and uses, the more comfortable you'll be adding them in unexpected places, for example a sweet Moroccan tagine dish, or as part of a glaze or frosting.

From a visual perspective, they're just lovely little red orbs - they set a festive mood almost instantly.

MPR News: What can be cranberries be used for beyond canned sauce?

Norton: I'd always advocate making cranberry sauce from scratch from whole frozen berries. It'll be a lot more tart and lively, and you can control the sugar so that it's a bit more sophisticated.

Beyond that, there's a lot that you can do. My wife and I always make cranberry vodka for the holidays. It's a simple infusion, and we've posted the recipe on Heavy Table. It's sweet, it's tart, it mixes beautifully, and if you just cut it with tonic it makes a great holiday drink with absolutely no effort.

We also have big silicone ice cube trays, and if you drop cranberries and mint leaves into the half-full trays and then top them off after the first half has frozen, you're left with floating, edible holiday centerpieces that can go right into your drinks. It's such a simple thing, but it really sets the mood.

James Norton is editor of the online food magazine The Heavy Table. He has authored several books about the regional food scene, including "Food Lovers' Guide to the Twin Cities" and "The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin." Follow him @chowsupertaster.