After much hemming and hawing, the verdict is in at our house—we are going big for Thanksgiving. No, I do not mean big in the gathering sense, because that is out of the question during a pandemic. It will only be the two of us, so our “big” means bold, less-than-traditional flavors. This departure from the usual has been my fantasy for several years, but other people get pretty attached to classic, traditional flavors and it almost feels cruel to spring big changes on friends and loved ones who have been building anticipation for the flavors they’ve come to expect at Thanksgiving.
As much as my husband, Les, and I also enjoy our own traditions (including taking turns with the preparation of the turkey—a pact we made when we got engaged), we are changing things up significantly this year, partly because we can do so without disappointing anyone, but also because it feels adventurous and fun in a year that has been pretty hum-drum. It’s Les’s year for the turkey, but rather than his usual brined, stuffed and basted 20-plus pounder, he has decided to do a dry spice rub and prepare our smaller turkey in his new charcoal smoker. And with these bold flavors on the bird, we are planning to keep pace with our sides and accoutrements, including the cranberry sauce.
Most years, we make everyone at the table happy with two different styles of homemade cranberry sauce. Les makes one that is sweetened with both brown and white sugars, simmered in apple cider, and accented with sections of mandarin orange. It’s slightly tangy, but mostly sweet, and more on the “saucy” side. I usually ask him to make extra so we have plenty left over to use as topping on vanilla ice cream. Yum. My version of cranberry sauce leans to the chunky, tart side, usually with spices such as cinnamon, clove and cardamom, and simmered in dry red wine. It is a decidedly “grownup” cranberry sauce, and stands in contrast to so much of the richness happening on the traditional table.
This year, however, we will have only this one cranberry sauce—bearing the bright and bold flavors of orange and jalapeno. Now, you may cringe at the suggestion of jalapeno, worried that it will be too intense, but let me assure you it’s a fantastic twist, a pleasant undertone that stands up to the bright citrus and tart cranberry, but does not overwhelm.
If you’ve never made your own cranberry sauce before, please let me show you how simple it is. All you need for this recipe is a large saucepan, a bag of cranberries, a large orange, a large fresh jalapeno and a cup of sugar. You can move this to the “done” column in less than half an hour, and it’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks (that is, if you are disciplined to not eat it straight from the fridge with a spoon). Let’s do this!
12 oz. bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted for “losers”* (see notes)
1 cup real cane sugar (or slightly less if you prefer more tang)
1 large fresh organic orange*, washed
1 large fresh jalapeno pepper, seeds removed and minced*
A stingy pinch of kosher salt
A few twists of freshly ground coarse black pepper
Rinse the cranberries in a wide colander that allows you to inspect the quality of the berries. Discard any that are dried up, soft or otherwise questionable. Even with a brand-new bag of cranberries, I usually find about a dozen losers that don’t make the cut.
Organic orange is best here because we will be eating the peel, and pesticides are neither tasty nor safe to ingest. Whether you use organic or conventional, be sure you wash the orange well before stripping the peel.
If you are nervous about handling the raw jalapeno, feel free to slip on some rubber kitchen gloves for this part of the recipe, then carefully peel them off and into the trash once done. I can’t work well with gloves, so here’s my advice: the sooner you clear the irritating jalapeno oils from your skin, the less likely you are to accidentally touch your eyes, nose or lips and get a painful reminder of the intensity of the capsaicin oils. But if you wash with water right away, you risk spreading the oils around rather than breaking them down. Here’s a simple way to stop the burn before it begins—Dawn dish liquid. Yep, the same blue stuff they use in the TV ads to save the baby birds from oil spills. Any good dish liquid would probably do it, but Dawn is what I use. Gently rub the dish soap, full-strength, straight onto your dry hands, covering every part that may have touched the raw pepper, and give it a few seconds to begin dissolving the pepper oils. Be sure to rub the dish liquid under your nails and between your fingers. Then, wash and rinse your hands and the knife you used to cut the pepper.
It may seem odd to add any amount of salt and pepper, but remember that salt is an enhancer that punches up whatever flavors are in your dish. As for the pepper, it’s an easy way to add an extra little “bite” to underscore the surprising flavor of jalapeno. You will not taste black pepper. Trust me, it works.
The essence of orange is front and center, giving this cranberry sauce a bright and festive freshness, and the jalapeno is evident but not at all “hot.” It’s going to be a nice complement to the smoky flavors Les will be infusing into our turkey, but I’ll probably sneak into the fridge with my spoon for a few more taste tests (just to be sure) between now and Thanksgiving. And don’t be surprised if I find a way to use the leftovers in a post-holiday appetizer or something. As you all know, I cannot leave well enough alone. 😊
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