Cranberries Grow Beyond Sauce

That little red tart you invite to your table every Thanksgiving is being asked back year-round now.

Cranberries are surpassing their traditional sauce stereotype and becoming a part of everyday life, showing up in places such as the cereal bowl, the bathroom, as well as in some unexpected dishes such as Tex Mex Cranberry Salsa.

"America loves everything sweet and sour," said Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food and Wine (search), who added that cranberries are popular because they're like "raisins with a little bit of tang to them...a more sophisticated flavor at a reasonable price."

Americans consume more than 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 20 percent of which is during Thanksgiving week, according to Ocean Spray (search).

Now the company, known for its cranberry and cran-apple juices among others, is helping customers venture beyond sauce with a Web site that provides inventive recipes like Cranberry-Caramelized Onion Cheese Spread and Winter Squash and Cranberry Risotto to encourage people to utilize the little fruit in new ways.

"People think of it for baked goods and sauce, but it really lends itself well to savory dishes," said Sharon Newcomb, spokeswoman for Ocean Spray. "As long as you are working within the flavors of the season, you still can have a dish that's different but it's acceptable to people. They think 'Okay, this still tastes like fall.'"

The Web site also offers craft suggestions for things like sprucing up the holiday table and everyday décor with cranberries, which can add a punch of red to decorations. And you don't have to be Martha Stewart to use the simple ideas.

The cranberry candle float makes a unique centerpiece that can hold a candle beyond Thanksgiving. Fill a bowl with water, dump in a bag of cranberries and add some floating candles -- colorful, illuminating and festive. And it doesn't get much easier than cranberry ice cubes. Just drop some berries and water into an ice cube tray to create festive drink chillers.

Threatening the raisin realm are "craisins" -- sweetened dried cranberries, eaten alone as a snack or used in recipes year round. Fresh cranberries are only available in season (roughly September - December). But the fresh variety freezes well, so buying a few bags to keep throughout the year is feasible.

Tasty, tangy and tart, cranberries have health benefits as well. Researchers at the Cranberry Institute have discovered the tiny fruit has big benefits for the body.

Cranberries have some "stand alone qualities, particularly their anti-bacterial effects, which seem to be unique to the cranberry," said Jere Downing, executive director of the Cranberry Institute (search), in Wareham, Mass. who added: "Many other fruits contain anti-oxidants, but the cranberry is very high in them."

Cranberry consumption is most well-known for helping prevent urinary tract infections. One or two glasses a day of cranberry cocktail can block bacteria from attaching to the bladder wall, Downing said.

The high antioxidant content of cranberries can also help improve circulation, memory and coordination in older adults, the institute found. And the latest evidence found in a lab study is that cranberries may help reduce damage from stroke.

Cranberries are good for your insides and outsides. The Body Shop features a line of cranberry based products that offer more than a festive color and scent. Cranberries' antioxidant properties help protect skin from harmful free radicals and the effects of the environment, a company spokeswoman said.

The Body Shop Cranberry Collection includes Cranberry Body Butter (a rich moisturizer containing cranberry extract, cocoa butter and shea butter), Cranberry Body Scrub (enriched with cranberry extract, grapeseed oil and apricot kernel oil) and Cranberry Bubble Bath -- perfect for a relaxing soak after all the cooking and feasting on Thanksgiving.

Aside from all its extra uses, the cranberry holds an indelible place in the holiday season.

"A normal Thanksgiving meal wouldn't be complete without cranberry sauce," Ujlaki said. "I serve two to three different kinds of cranberry sauce every year...with lemons, oranges, port, sherry, ginger. You can do a zillion things with it."