Wednesday 9 November 2011

This Cranberry Relish Changed How I Think About Food

I’m sure that every cook has a few cookbooks that they revisit again and again.  I do.  One of mine is Helen Witty’s “Fancy Pantry.’ 
When I first got this book in 1986 I had mastered the basics of canning and preserving, and was looking to expand my repertoire to include some more adventurous fare.  I was intrigued by the table of contents so I bought it, brought it home, and worked my way through every single recipe.  Some were hits.  Others—like the mushroom ketchup—most definitely were not.  Still, there were more winners than losers; enough to keep me returning to this book year after year.

Ms. Witty’s cranberry relish recipe was more than a hit; it was an absolute revelation to me.  The first time I made this relish, I took it as a hostess gift for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house.  I spooned it onto my plate right beside my turkey, just as I always do with regular cranberry sauce.  I wasn’t expecting much but the first forkful hit me full on.  It was a salty and sweet, with some acidity from the cranberries and lemon juice, a bit of bite from the raw onion, and a hint of heat from the cayenne and ginger.  

You have to remember that I was experiencing this amazing combination of flavours at a time before TV made chefs more popular than movie stars, and when the selection of ingredients and spices in our small town grocery store was much more limited than what you will find there today.  We had not yet been exposed to world cuisine or to the wealth of flavours and variety of ingredients that are available to us now.  Sweet and salty was not a combination of flavours greatly in vogue, nor were sweet and savoury. That cranberry relish introduced us to something that was, to me, strikingly new:  It felt like my taste buds were celebrating Mardi Gras—with all its accompanying flamboyance and fireworks—rather than the predictable (and slightly dull) oranges and browns of autumn and Thanksgiving.

Since that first batch of relish, it’s made a regular appearance in our refrigerator, and not just for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It’s an excellent accompaniment to sharp cheeses, cold cuts, poultry, ham, and sliced apples or pears, so I make it often.

Helen Witty’s recipe is so delicious that I really haven’t amended it at all over the years.  If you’d like to try it too, here’s how.

You’ll need:

  • 3 c. cranberries, either fresh or frozen and about half thawed at the time you make the relish
  • 3 Tbsp. finely chopped red onion or shallot (I prefer the onion)
  • 3/4 c. golden raisins, soaked briefly in hot water, then drained
  • 3/4 c. red currant jelly
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1-1/2 tsp. salt
  • A generous pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. ground ginger
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, strained

Pick over the cranberries and rinse them.  Chop them coarsely.  (This can be done in a food processor.) Scrape them into a mixing bowl. (I used my big measuring cup this time.)

Coarsely chop your raisins.  (This is best done by hand.)  Add them to the cranberries, together with the chopped onion, and stir the ingredients together until they’re well combined.

Combine the currant jelly, sugar, salt, cayenne pepper, and ginger in a microwaveable measuring cup.  Give the ingredients a good stir so that the jelly begins to break down.  Microwave this mixture on high at 30 second intervals, giving the mixture a good whisk in between each interval, until it’s hot but not boiling and the sugar and salt have dissolved into the jelly.

Pour the hot jelly mixture over the cranberries and add the 3 Tbsp. of lemon juice.  Stir all the ingredients together and then transfer them to a glass jar or a lidded plastic container.  Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for at least a day before using the relish.  

Ms. Witty says this relish will keep in the fridge for about 6 weeks but ours gets used up long before that.

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