In her memoire, Amarcord, the late Italian cooking maven Marcella Hazan humorously related her first encounter with one of our country's most enduring Thanksgiving traditions, that of accompanying the turkey with a tart-sweet condiment made from cranberries.
Thinking the sauce that her host had solicitously spooned over her turkey was akin to peperonata (a savory sauce of red peppers and caramelized onions), her first bite was such a shock that it took all her self-control to keep from spitting it out.
Eventually, Signora Hazan was able to embrace the sweet tomato ketchup that was persistently slathered on her hamburgers, but never made her peace with cranberry sauce. I couldn't blame her: Though well aware that the custom of serving game with some tart-sweet fruit condiment is an old one, I've never been able to tolerate cranberry sauce and turkey in the same room together, never mind on the same plate.
Nonetheless, for most Americans, the sauce is to turkey what mustard is to hotdogs. If some form of it didn't appear on our Thanksgiving table, my family would very likely mutiny. And actually, I don't mind, especially after discovering how lovely cranberries are with sweet potatoes, and even offer both the raw relish and cooked preserve that follow.
The good thing about most cranberry sauces and relishes is that they benefit from being made several days ahead and up to a point actually improve with age. I made both conserves yesterday and have them ripening in the fridge; it's one less thing to have to worry over at the last minute.
Cranberry Orange Preserves
To julienne orange zest for this conserve, I use a bar zester, but if you don't have a tool like that, remove the zest in long strips with a vegetable peeler, taking care not to take off the bitter white pith with it, then cut it into thin strings with a sharp cook's knife.
Makes about 2½-3 cups
12 ounces (1 package) fresh cranberries
Zest from 1 large navel orange, julienned (see notes above)
1 cup raw (turbinado sugar)
1 cup water
2 tablespoons bourbon or cognac
1. Wash the cranberries in a basin of cold water, drain well, and put them in a heavy-bottomed 3-quart stainless steel or enameled pan. Add the zest, sugar, and water and stir well.
2. Bring it to a boil over medium high heat, adjust the heat to a lively simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries burst. Turn off the heat, stir in the bourbon or cognac, and let it cool in the pan. Transfer to a glass or stainless steel storage container, cover tightly, and refrigerate until you're ready to serve. It's best made at least 24 hours ahead.
My version of this popular relish came from the old Purefoy Hotel in Talladega, Alabama, but a similar condiment has been traditional on both sides of our family for generations.
I used to make it with tart apples and wondered why it never was quite like the relish I grew up with. Then I discovered that most of those had been made with the least interesting apple variety around—the so-called red delicious. While not my favorite on their own, they're lovely in this.
The original recipe yielded twice this amount, a lot more than we can use in my family, so I've divided the recipe for one 12-ounce package of cranberries.
Makes about 4 cups
12 ounces (1 package) fresh cranberries
1 large navel orange
2 small or 1½ large, firm red delicious apples
1¼ cups sugar
1. Wash all the fruit and drain it well. Pick over the cranberries and discard any soft or blemished berries. Slice the oranges crosswise into ½-inch slices. Remove any seeds and cut each slice (peeling and all) into chunks the same size as the berries. Core the apples and cut them into chunks of roughly the same size.
2. Put the berries and chunks of orange and apple in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until uniformly chopped. Add the sugar and pulse until it's mixed in and the relish is finely chopped. It should still have some texture but should be uniform and not at all chunky.
3. Transfer the relish to a glass or stainless steel bowl, stir well, then cover and refrigerate it for at least 24 hours—48 or more is even better. Stir well before serving cold.