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updated 11/12/2009 12:32:13 PM ET 2009-11-12T17:32:13

It just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without these classic ingredients. But there are excellent reasons to eat them on other days, too: They're delicious, they're easy to cook, and each happens to be a nutritional superstar.

A staple of the Thanksgiving table, these pucker-inducing berries are surprisingly versatile, brightening both savory and sweet dishes. Their high content of pectin (a naturally occurring thickening agent) makes cranberries particularly well suited for sauce. Cranberry sauce is one of the quickest and easiest holiday sides to make from scratch. Fresh cranberries are high in vitamin C. They are also a good source of antioxidants.

  • How to buy: Peak season for cranberries runs from October through December, though frozen cranberries are available year-round. You can stock up on fresh cranberries when in season and store them in the freezer. Whether fresh or frozen, cranberries are typically packaged in 12-ounce plastic bags, though you can sometimes find loose fresh berries during their season. Look for plump, firm berries that are bright red and shiny. Ripe berries should bounce, lending cranberries the alternative name "bounceberries." Sweetened dried cranberries are also widely available in supermarkets.

  • How to use
  • Substitute dried cranberries for raisins in baked goods, eat them plain as a snack, or sprinkle them over a salad.
  • Add fresh cranberries to your favorite quick bread or muffin recipe.
  • To make a sweet topping for cheesecake or ice cream, simmer fresh cranberries with water and sugar over medium heat just until cranberries pop.
  • Combine fresh cranberries with sugar, apple cider, apple cider vinegar, fresh ginger (peeled and chopped), dried crushed red pepper, and one large Bosc pear (peeled, cored, and cubed). Simmer past the point where cranberries pop, until cranberry chutney is thick, about 20 minutes.

  • How to store: Because of their high acidity, cranberries store exceptionally well. Fresh cranberries, either in their original plastic bag or tightly wrapped, will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Frozen cranberries will keep up to a year.

Brussels Sprouts

A member of the cabbage family, the earthy, nutty-tasting Brussels sprout looks like a miniature head of cabbage. Ranging in diameter from 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches, Brussels sprouts grow on thick green branches, and are sold either on the branch or individually. Brussels sprouts get a bad rap because they are so easy to overcook, resulting in a mushy texture and pungent aroma. When cooked properly, Brussels sprouts should be crisp-tender, with a pleasant crunch and a complex, slightly sweet flavor. Brussels sprouts are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron.

  • How to buy: Look for small to medium sprouts (the bigger ones often have less flavor). They should be bright green, with the leaves tightly wrapped. Brussels sprouts are in season from late August through March, and are sometimes sold on the stalk at farmers' markets and good produce markets.

  • How to use: Before cooking, prep Brussels sprouts by removing any tough or shriveling outer leaves and cutting a small X in the stem end of each sprout, to help ensure the interior cooks in the same amount of time as the exterior, preventing overcooking. To cook Brussels sprouts, drop them into boiling, salted water and let simmer for no more than 8 to 10 minutes, until they are crisp-tender. Sautéing Brussels sprouts in butter, oil, or rendered fat caramelizes their surface, bringing out their sweet, nutty flavor. You can sauté the leaves by themselves, or blanch whole Brussels sprouts and either halve or slice them before sautéing.

  • How to store: Refrigerate Brussels sprouts unwashed in an air-tight bag for up to a week.

Sweet Potatoes

This sweet root can be much more than just a vehicle for mini marshmallows. Though it comes in dozens of varieties (which can range in color from white to pink to purple), two types of sweet potatoes are the most prominent in the United States. The light sweet potato has pale-yellow skin and flesh, and is not sweet at all. When cooked, it has a crumbly texture, similar to that of a white baking potato. The second, better-known, type of sweet potato is the orange-fleshed variety generally labeled "yam." It has red skin and sweet flesh, and is particularly popular in the American South.

  • How to use: Sweet potatoes can be mashed, roasted, baked, boiled, or sautéed, and can also be made into sweet-potato chips or fries.

  • How to buy: Sweet potatoes are available year-round, and are at their peak during the winter. Choose small to medium sweet potatoes that are heavy for their size. Avoid any with bruises or signs of sprouting. Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes should have uniformly colored skin. The skin of light sweet potatoes is naturally more mottled.

  • How to store: Keep sweet potatoes in a cool, dark place for up to a week. Do not refrigerate (chilling can cause sweet potatoes to develop a permanently hard center).


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