Put some bounce in your bird: Liven up turkey and other dishes with the help of the versatile, hardy cranberry

For years I've longed to see an American cranberry harvest. By all accounts, it is a spectacular sight. The boggy fields of low, heather-like bushes are artificially flooded, the cranberries knocked off into the water, then drained off in an enormous scarlet wave. Imagine this on a perfect autumn day, with blue skies and gold- and orange-leaved trees.

Cranberries are naturally tough and survive this treatment unblemished. In fact, one sign of a good cranberry is said to be its bounce factor - they are sometimes known as bounceberries. Quality used to be assessed by tipping cranberries down a flight of stairs: those that skipped down to the bottom gained the seal of approval; laggards were discarded.

Once harvested, cranberries will keep for months, under the right conditions. They must have been one of the great blessings for native Indians and early settlers in North America: a source of vitamin C with a fresh flavour that would last right through winter.

The cranberry is a member of the heather family, which includes blueberries, cowberries and bilberries. The European cranberry grows wild on moors throughout northern Europe. Its name was transferred to the larger American cranberry by the first immigrants from Europe, glad to have found something familiar and sustaining.

Domestic cultivation began in the early 19th century, at Cape Cod, still one of the main centres for commercial production. Cranberries are harvested every year - for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and now for sending overseas to us. Cranberry sauce, without which any self-respecting American roast turkey would feel naked, has made considerable inroads here. It slots neatly into our already extensive repertoire of sweet-sour fruity accompaniments to hot and cold meats.

Though cranberries are undoubtedly ideal for making quick, chutney-like sauces, it is a shame to limit them to just this use: they will keep for two to three weeks in the fridge, and probably much longer if you regularly pick them over and throw out any bruised fruits. They also freeze easily, with virtually no deterioration; and once Christmas has passed, the supply dries up.

Cranberry & orange sauce

There are endless variations on the theme - some tempered with orange juice or port, with this spice or that. This is one version I like, though I tamper with it practically every time. As the sauce keeps well in the fridge, it's worth making a large quantity.

Serves 8-10

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) cranberries

finely grated zest and juice of 2 oranges

8oz (225g) castor sugar

1 cinnamon stick

3 cloves

1tsp ground allspice

Preparation: Put all the ingredients into a pan and stir over a medium-low heat until the juices begin to run and the sugar has dissolved. Bring to boil and simmer for 5-8 minutes until the cranberries have popped. Spoon into a bowl, leave to cool and store, covered, in the fridge.

Cranberry & ginger relish

If I have a little more time, then I'll make this whole cranberry relish, baked slowly in the oven. Stored in sterilised jars in a cool dark place, it will keep for a month or more.

Makes about 1 1/2 lb (675g)

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) cranberries

8oz (225g) castor sugar

finely grated zest/juice of 1/2 orange

3 spheres of preserved stem ginger, finely chopped

Preparation: Spread cranberries in a single layer in an oven-proof dish or roasting tin. Sprinkle evenly with remaining ingredients and cover with foil. Bake at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for about 45 minutes, stirring twice. Spoon into hot sterilised jars (see Annapolis conserve) and seal.

Annapolis conserve

This is a marvellously Christmassy preserve, ideal as a present if you can bear to give it away. I have adapted the recipe slightly (mainly by reducing the sugar) from one I found in a Canadian cookbook, The Cranberry Connection, by Beatrice Ross Buszek.

Makes around 6lb (2.7kg)

Ingredients: 3 oranges, peeled and cut into 1/2 in (1.5cm) chunks

2 lemons

1lb (450g) cranberries

1 pineapple, peeled, eyed and cut into 1/2 in (1.5cm) chunks

8oz (225g) currants

3 1/2 lb (1.6kg) sugar

6oz (170g) blanched, nibbed almonds or chopped walnuts

Preparation: Pare the zest from the oranges and lemons and blanch for 1 minute in boiling water. Drain well. Peel the oranges and cut into 1/2 in chunks. Extract and save as many pips as you can find while you work. Squeeze the juice of the lemons, again saving pips. Tie all the pips together in a square of muslin. Measure the lemon juice and make up to 1/4 pint with water.

Put all the fruit, with the watered lemon juice, zests and pip bag into a large preserving pan. Stir over a medium heat until the juices begin to run fairly copiously. Add the sugar and keep stirring, without letting the mixture boil, until sugar has completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil hard for about 30 minutes until very thick. Skim off scum and discard pip bag. Stir in the almonds or walnuts. Ladle into hot sterilised jam jars, seal tightly and leave to cool.

Sterilising: Wash jars in warm soapy water then rinse in hot water. Without touching the insides, place on a wire rack in the oven, set to 110C/225F/Gas Mark 1/2 . Leave for at least half an hour, until the jam is ready to be potted.

Cranberry & walnut stuffing

Cranberries give this stuffing a fruity sourness, which I particularly like, though you may wish to temper it by adding a spoonful of sugar.

Enough for 1 chicken

Ingredients: 1 small onion, chopped

1oz (30g) butter

2oz (55g) fresh white breadcrumbs

4oz (110g) cranberries, roughly chopped

1oz (30g) walnuts, chopped

2tbs chopped parsley

1 egg

salt, pepper, nutmeg

Preparation: Fry the onion gently in the butter until tender and translucent. Mix with all the remaining ingredients, adding just enough egg to bind.

Cranberry butter tart

The butter in the filling gives this tart a rich translucence, balanced by the tartness of the cranberries.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

Pastry: 8oz (225g) plain flour

pinch salt

4oz (110g) butter

1tbs castor sugar

finely grated zest 1 orange

1 egg

Filling: 8oz (225g) cranberries

8oz (225g) castor sugar

4oz (110g) unsalted butter

2 eggs

1oz (30g) flaked almonds

Preparation: To make the pastry, sift the flour with the salt, then rub in the butter. Stir in sugar and orange zest. Make a well in the centre and break in the egg. Mix, adding just enough cold water to form a dough. Knead briefly to smooth out, then wrap in clingfilm and chill for 1/2 hour. Line a 10in (25cm) tart tin with the pastry, prick the base with a fork and rest again in the fridge for half an hour. Line with greaseproof paper or foil, weigh down with baking beans and bake blind at 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6, for 10 minutes. Remove beans and paper and return to the oven for 5 minutes to dry out.

Put the cranberries into a pan with a quarter of the sugar and 2tbs of water. Stir over a low heat until juice begins to run and sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly until cranberries have all burst. Off the heat, beat in the remaining sugar, then the butter, cut into small pieces. Cool until tepid, then beat in the eggs.

Pour into the pastry case, scatter with almonds and return to the oven for about 30 minutes until just set. Serve warm.

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