Thanksgiving is when I miss the US the most. While life in Belgium goes on as usual, my friends and family back home are buying sweet potatoes, roasting turkeys and preparing for a long weekend of indulgence. Our oven here is so small that it wouldn’t even fit a turkey. Come to think of it, I haven’t even seen a whole turkey in stores. Cranberries, on the other hand, start showing up around the beginning of October. They are usually imported from North America, and the selection ranges from organic and handpicked (and priced accordingly) to the conventional Ocean Spray brand.
I love cranberries so much that I buy several bags at once and freeze whatever I can’t immediately use. Their exuberant tartness and hint of bitterness make them an interesting component in tarts, jams and sauces. My grandmother’s pickled cabbage is liberally studded with these shiny red berries– after pickling they become even more mouthpuckeringly tart but also quite addictive. She even uses them in desserts to make a whipped semolina and cranberry porridge that feels like a light mousse and is a relative of the Finnish dish called vispipuuro.
Cooked cranberries are much less assertive, but their acidity is a perfect foil for meat and poultry. Even if you don’t make the full Thanksgiving spread, a cranberry sauce is a must have accompaniment for turkey. My favorite cranberry sauce is inspired by the aromatic Georgian condiment called tkemali. In Georgia it is made with sour tkemali plums and a generous dose of herbs. The popularity of tkemali has spread far beyond this small country in the Caucasus region, and you can even find Russian versions of tkemali sold in Brooklyn. If you ever taste classical Georgian tkemali, you’ll quickly understand the reason for its popularity. Fresh herbs are used to create robust but exquisite flavors, and the interplay between basil, coriander, garlic and mint is exciting.
Tkemali plums are in season during early spring and can be found at Turkish stores, but cranberries and other tart berries can be used instead. Apricots, plums, gooseberries, red currants, and blackberries make interesting variations on the same hot and spicy idea, while in Europe, airelles, lingonberries, may be used. Lingonberries are as tiny as currants and as delicate as champagne grapes. Like cranberries, uncooked lingonberries have a vivid tartness and a tannic bite, which makes your mouth feel dry. Ready-made lingonberry sauces can be found at meat and poultry shops since these sauces marry perfectly with rich, savory flavors.
Spiked with garlic and chili flakes, this cranberry sauce is more dramatic than the traditional sweet cranberry condiment served with Thanksgiving turkey, but it’s also versatile enough to become a staple in my fridge. It adds a zesty note to burgers, grilled fish and even cheese sandwiches. It accents the creamy sweetness of roasted chicken and stands up well to duck and game meats. It may be a usual weekday here, but as I stand over the simmering scarlet sauce and smell its heady perfume of basil, coriander and garlic, I already feel more festive.
Hot and Spicy Cranberry Sauce with Coriander and Fresh Herbs
You can add up to 1/2 cup of sugar, depending on what flavor balance you prefer. I like my cranberry sauce on the tart and hot side, so I keep sugar to a minimum, but if you have more of a sweet tooth, don’t hesitate to increase the sugar quantity.
You can use a variety of herbs for the sauce–dill, tarragon, parsley, and marjoram marry perfectly with cranberries. Using several herbs gives more complexity to the sauce, but don’t hesitate to use a single herb if that’s all you have on hand.
Use other types of tart fruit or berries to play with the flavors, adjusting the sugar ratio depending on the sweetness you prefer. If you use apricots or plums, you might need to add a bright acidic note with some lemon juice.
2 cups cranberries
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
4 Tablespoon-1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
2 finely minced garlic cloves
1/4-1 teaspoon hot chili pepper flakes, depending on your heat tolerance
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1/2 Tablespoon minced fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
1/2 Tablespoon minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon minced fresh dill
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
Toast coriander seeds till they become pale golden and crush to fine powder with a mortar and pestle. This extra step releases coriander’s full flavor of burnt orange peel and caramel.
Place cranberries and water in a medium sized saucepan over medium heat, cover and cook until the cranberries start to pop, about 10 minutes. Mash with a spoon and add salt and sugar. Simmer on low heat till the sugar dissolves, 2 minutes. Add garlic, chili flakes and coriander seeds. Cook till garlic loses its raw taste, about 5 minutes. Add fresh and dried herbs and simmer for another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and place sauce in a bowl. Cranberry sauce will thicken as it cools. Store in the fridge for a week.
For longer storage, sterilize a canning jar by baking it in an oven preheated to 250F/120C for 20 minutes. Pour the sauce into the hot jar, seal and store in the fridge.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin