Friday, November 15, 2013

Spiced Cranberry and Dried Fruit Chutney

My first exposure to the taste of cranberries came at Thanksgiving while growing up in the midwest. To be more specific, it came in the form of a canned cranberry sauce (the jellied versus the whole berry version of course). As a kid, the overly sweet and tart cranberry sauce which slid out of the can and retained its' barrel like shape for hours was like having dessert with dinner. It made being forced to eat mashed potatoes tolerable. I don't think I ever saw a real cranberry until sometime well into adulthood. No, I am not going into a childhood food deprivation whine here (even though I would like to) as I would rather share how I came to find a cranberry alternative to the canned jellied sauce of my youth.

I don't have an exact count but I believe I have made more than a dozen versions of cranberry sauce and cranberry chutney over the years. Possibly more versions than any other food (including chocolate chip cookies). Whether it was using raw or cooked cranberries with varying amounts of sugar, spices, fruits, nuts or alcohol or whether it was a recipe labeled as a sauce or chutney, I just couldn't seem to find one having the perfect combination of taste and texture. Many of the recipes made I liked well enough, but I was committed to keep trying until I found 'the one' (I think I heard John Wayne's voice saying 'You are a persistent cuss, Pilgrim' several times over the past few years during this cranberry sauce/chutney making journey). For awhile I was beginning to think my search for this elusive perfect cranberry concoction would go on endlessly or I would just end up settling for one of them. One thing was certain, there would not be a return to the canned jellied cranberry sauce. So I was as beside myself as one can be when I finally discovered 'the one'. 'The one' turned out to be a spiced cranberry and dried fruit chutney. And it couldn't have been more different in taste and texture than what I had eaten growing up.

Of course, this would be one of those recipes I wouldn't share what the ingredients were until everyone had tasted it. Not because there was anything unusual in it, but because the combination of ingredients might give some pause before they even tried it (you know who these people are in your life). If you haven't guessed by now, I enjoy maintaining my 'taste first, tell later' philosophy when something new is being served. Particularly when this something new means a change is being made at the Thanksgiving table. Thankfully, this change was so well received I am convinced there would be a few unhappy campers if something other than spiced cranberry and dried fruit chutney was placed on the holiday dinner table.

Fresh cranberries, I have learned, come in various sizes. Some of the cranberries coming out of the bogs on the Cape are the size of large grapes and gorgeous, however, most cranberries are the size of marbles. Regardless of their size or shape, cranberries are not only one of the most beautiful fruits, they are considered by some to be a 'superfruit' due to their nutrient content and antioxidant qualities. Finally, I like a food that is actually good for you!

In addition to fresh cranberries, this chutney is made with two dried fruits: blueberries and apricots. The smaller wild dried blueberries are my personal favorites, but any dried blueberry will work in this chutney. The apricots are sliced thinly but not too thinly as you want them to remain intact in the chutney during the cooking process. Depending on the size of the dried apricots, they can yield three to four slices. I have found using scissors is easier than using a knife when slicing the apricots.

Okay so you are thinking, why all of the initial secrecy around the ingredients? Nothing different or unusual yet. Brown sugar and thawed frozen canned cranberry juice wouldn't qualify as different. However, maybe the combination of cinnamon, crystallized ginger, and crushed Aleppo pepper would. Alone the crystallized ginger and Aleppo pepper are not that unusual, except for me, they are not ingredients generally thought of as being used when making either cranberry sauce or chutney.

On the easy to hard scale, the making of this chutney falls to the easy end of the continuum. All of the ingredients except two are placed in a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat. When the sugar has dissolved, the heat is increased to high. Stirring often, the mixture is boiled until thickened. This could take up to 4 minutes.

To gauge its' thickness readiness, I like to scrape a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pan. If I can see the bottom of the pan, I know I am at the right level of thickness. The chutney further thickens as it sets so if you slightly err the level of thickness, not to worry. Just make sure most of the cranberries have burst during the cooking process. When the chutney reaches the desired state of thickness you remove from heat and add a pinch of salt and two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. While I think everyone likes balsamic vinegar, it might be another one of those ingredients not expected in a recipe with cranberries.

The oh so pretty cranberries are transformed into a really beautiful chutney. Beyond how it looks, I absolutely love the texture and layers of flavor in this chutney. And its' versatility makes it preferable over a traditional cranberry sauce. In addition to being a great side with either chicken or turkey, it can be served as an appetizer with softened cream or goat cheese and crackers. If that wasn't enough versatility for you, it also makes for a terrific condiment on turkey sandwiches.

Spiced Cranberry and Dried-Fruit Chutney (ever so slight adaptation to recipe created by Jan Schroeder of Corvallis, Oregon)

2 cups fresh cranberries
16 dried apricots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1/4 cup frozen cranberry juice, thawed (frozen cranberry juice is more concentrated than cranberry juice in the bottle and makes for a more flavorful chutney)
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon crushed Aleppo pepper (or cayenne pepper)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
pinch of Kosher salt

1. Place all ingredients (except balsamic vinegar and salt) in a medium saucepan.
2. Cook over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves.
3. Increase heat to high and cook until thickened (stir often). Could take up to 4 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and add balsamic vinegar and season with a pinch of Kosher salt.
5. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate.
Note: The Spiced Cranberry and Dried Fruit Chutney can be made at least one day or up to a week before serving. Personally I like to make this chutney either on the morning of or the day before serving.

A few weeks back I created a game of sorts with the only players being my niece and nephew. Once a week I text them a photo from an experience occurring during their childhood. The game part comes in when they have to identify its' location. The sibling who gets the location correct first receives a financial reward (we aren't talking alot of money here, just the kind of money that comes in handy for a college kid and just enough to peak their interest while indulging their aunt in this endeavor). With one of them in the eastern time zone and the other on mountain time, the timing of sending these texts has been the most challenging aspect of the game (because they are all about having it be fair, competitiveness is in their DNA).

Early on in their lives, they spent an incredible amount of time with us and almost every experience was photographed with a camera (cell phones with cameras weren't around back then, which really wasn't that long ago). I had wanted to capture these experiences in film, so that someday they could look back at the photos and remember their time spent at zoos, museums, county fairs, and on trips with an aunt and uncle who loved them very much. For me and hopefully for them, each of these experiences are (or will someday be) seen as the things that created the (indestructible) foundation of the relationship we have with one another today.

Now that they are in college and the amount of time spent with them is considerably less than it was when they were younger, I have sought to find (and not leave to chance) creative ways to continue to keep our connections with one another strong. So the game for me is just another way for me to remind them how much they have always been loved as well as a way of creating another memory between us as well as them. While it thrills me when they remember the events or places we went to, it thrills me even more to know that the quality of relationship we have with one another today came as a result of the time spent together. Finding ways to spend time and engage with these busy college kids on top of my busy life over the years hasn't always been easy. But every now and then, I need to make sure there are no cracks in the proverbial (relationship) foundation by creating new memories, even ones as seemingly silly as the game they are now playing.

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