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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 08:10 pm

Nutritious cranberries aren't just for Thanksgiving dinner

Use them in salads, sauces, beverages, and desserts

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This week we celebrate the many things for which we are thankful. Many of us will sit down to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with our family and friends. A traditional meal for my family includes turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, corn pudding, a cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie.

Our tradition of celebrating the fall harvest dates back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted together. Cranberries, one of three fruits native to North America, may have been served at this celebration and continue to appear on holiday menus. (The other two native fruits are blueberries and Concord grapes.) The fruit was called “crane berry” by the Pilgrims because the pink flower blossom and small stem resembled the head and beak of a crane. Eventually the name was shortened to “cranberry.”

Wisconsin is the national leader in cranberry production, producing more than 50 percent of the cranberries that Americans consume each year. The 2006 Wisconsin cranberry harvest yielded approximately 3.6 million barrels of fruit. Other major cranberry-producing states are Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington.

So what are the steps to growing a successful cranberry crop?

The cranberry plant is a low-growing, trailing, woody evergreen vine. Plants prefer a sandy or organic, acid soil with a pH between 4.0 and 5.5. Plant beds are excavated to about 18 inches above the water table. It takes about four years to produce a crop of fruit from a new plant.

Fruit are borne on short vertical branches known as uprights. An upright can grow erect for one or two seasons before its weight bends it downward and a new vertical shoot is produced. Flower buds form in late summer of the season before they open. The plants produce the aforementioned pink flower in late June and early July. After pollination, a berry begins to develop. The green berry takes 75 to 100 days to mature to the familiar dark-red color.

Cranberries are harvested in September and October. Beds are either wet- or dry-harvested. One technique for harvesting is to flood the marsh area where the plants are growing. Mechanical harvesters lift the berries from the vines.

In the winter, cranberry plants must be protected against fluctuating temperatures and drying winds. In December, dormant vines are flooded with water that freezes into a solid covering of ice. In the spring, water is pumped out of the bogs.

Fresh cranberries are only available at supermarkets in the fall, September-December, so it’s a good idea to buy extra bags for later use. Cranberries can be frozen for as long as nine months.

Cranberries are a good source of dietary fiber and vitamin C, and raw cranberries are low in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Cranberries can be used in a variety of recipes including gelatin salads, sauces, beverages and desserts. This Thanksgiving, include a healthy cranberry dish as part of your celebration. Cranberry recipes and facts can be found on the Web site of the Wisconsin State Cranberries Growers Association, www.wiscran.org.

Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.

Cranberry Salad
1 (9 oz.) can crushed unsweetened pineapple, juice-packed
1 package (4 serving size) sugar-free cherry gelatin
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Sugar substitute equal to 1/4 cup sugar
1 cup fresh cranberries, ground
1 small orange, peeled, sectioned and thinly sliced
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup pecans or other nuts, broken into pieces (optional)

Drain pineapple and save juice. Set pineapple aside for later use. Combine pineapple juice with water to equal 2 cups liquid. Prepare gelatin according to package label using juice-water mixture for the liquid. Once gelatin is dissolved, stir in lemon juice. Chill until partially set.

In a separate bowl, combine the pineapple, sugar substitute, cranberries, orange pieces, celery, and nuts. Add this mixture to the partially set gelatin and stir until blended. Pour into large mold or individual molds. Chill until firm.

Do not use fresh or frozen pineapple in this recipe! It will not allow the gelatin to gel. Yield: 8 servings.

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