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updated 11/21/2007 9:22:00 AM ET 2007-11-21T14:22:00

One of three of North America’s native, commercially grown fruits, the cranberry has long been praised for its pungent taste and incredible versatility. Used in dishes and food dyes since the earliest days of the Native Americans, the cranberry is also a proven natural healing agent. In addition to its high antioxidant value, cranberries have been shown to promote urinary tract health by preventing certain pathogenic bacteria from sticking to key cells in our body. They may even reduce oxidation of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol.

The cranberry (or “craneberry”) derives its name from the small, pink blossoms that appear on the plant in the spring resembling the head and bill of a Sandhill crane. Upon arrival in the New World, European settlers discovered that the fruit was an effective bartering tool and extremely efficient in combating scurvy. Captain Henry Hall was the first to successfully cultivate the cranberry in 1816. The first association of cranberry growers in the U.S. formed in 1871.

Cranberries develop under extremely unique conditions. They are native wetland plants that require adequate fresh water and grow in beds — more commonly called bogs — that are layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. Originally formed by glaciers, these bogs slow the growth of weeds and insects, and allow the cranberry to thrive in a rich environment of purified water and organic matter.

Cranberries develop from a bud set on low-lying vines, like strawberries, in a long growing season that extends from April to November. Since an undamaged cranberry vine can survive indefinitely, growers do not replant annually. Some vines on Cape Cod are known to be more than 150 years old and are still bearing fruit, according to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association.

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In the colder months before the season begins, cranberry bogs are flooded to protect the vines and buds from winter injury. The water is removed in mid-March. Cranberries require up to one inch of water per week during the growing season, so in the drier summer months, water is often applied through a sprinkler system. Growers rely on one to two beehives per acre of bog during the June and July blooming period for pollination.

Harvest occurs once a year, from about mid-September through early November. Dry harvesting for fresh fruit berries involves raking berries off the vines with machines into boxes or bags. Wet harvesting for juices and sauces is accomplished with water reels. These “egg-beaters” stir up the water and dislodge the cranberries from their vines, causing them to float up to the water’s surface. More than 85 percent of cranberries are wet harvested.

Cranberries should be sorted to discard soft berries and stems, and then rinsed before using. Frozen cranberries should not be thawed before use. You can store fresh cranberries in the refrigerator for up to one month and in the freezer for up to one year. Frozen berries can be used in any recipe that calls for fresh berries in an equal amount.

When it comes to cranberries in juice form, read those labels carefully as there are a wide variety of beverages available. Although 100 percent cranberry juice is available in the marketplace, it is generally fairly tart and blended with water or another juice at home. Most cranberry juice cocktails contain 27 percent cranberry juice, caloric or noncaloric sweeteners, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and filtered water. Cranberry blends with other fruit juices have varying amounts of cranberry juice in the beverage, but generally less than 27 percent.

Here are two of my favorite recipes you can make for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner that are sure to please!

Recipe: Cranberry Sauce with Grand Marnier (on this page) Recipe: Cran-fruit relish (on this page)

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

Recipe: Cranberry Sauce with Grand Marnier

Ingredients
  • 1 package (12 ounces) of fresh cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons of Grand Marnier and orange juice concentrate
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
Preparation

Bake or heat cranberries, OJ and sugar on the stove until soft. Add Grand Marnier and refrigerate.

Recipe: Cran-fruit relish

Ingredients
  • 1 package (12 ounces) of fresh cranberries
  • 1/2 orange, peeled and chopped
  • 8 ounces of crushed pineapple or small hunks
  • 1 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Preparation

Blend the fruit in a food processor until chunky. Add spices and refrigerate.

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