By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, R.D., M.P.H.
What standard holiday side dish is so nutrient-packed and heart-healthy that it deserves more of a starring role in your meal? The answer: cranberries, which make their appearance October through December. Besides their tantalizingly tangy taste, cranberries (like other berries) are loaded with polyphenol antioxidants because of the high skin-to-fruit ratio; it’s no wonder they rank sixth on the USDA’s top 20 list of high-antioxidant foods.
Some of those beneficial compounds are thought to be behind cranberries’ cardiovascular protection. For instance, cranberry juice and cranberry powder supplements cause arteries to become more flexible, which can lower blood pressure. Other research shows that cranberries help to reduce inflammation (a trigger for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other ills) as well as help to prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol from becoming oxidized—one of the initial steps to a clogged artery.1
But unlike other berries, cranberries are much too tart to eat right out of the hand. The result: People try to mask the taste with loads of sugar, turning an inherently healthy dish into a sugar bomb. And because most people think of cranberries as a canned, jellied blob, it’s no surprise that they’re a polarizing fruit—can-shaped jelly slices and cloying sweet goop aren’t exactly culinary crowd pleasers. But if you think outside the can, you’ll find that there are so many likeable ways to use cranberries. Try one of our healthy ideas below to add cranberries to your holiday lineup.
Get in the mix. Chopped, fresh cranberries add a delicious layer of tartness to almost any sweet baked dish. Making pumpkin bread? Try tossing in a half a cup of chopped cranberries. Even run-of-the mill zucchini muffins taste brighter with a handful of chopped cranberries in the batter. And no need to start from scratch—fresh, chopped cranberries add a homemade touch to boxed mixes too.
Like them hot. Already tired of the limited selection of cooler-weather fruit? Add a little excitement to ordinary apples or pears by mixing 2 chopped (unpeeled) fruits with 2 cups of whole, fresh cranberries and a half a cup of sugar. Bake until all fruit is tender and cranberries have “popped,” after about 50 minutes. You can serve up half a cup as a slightly sweet dinner side or breakfast belly warmer. Leftovers make tasty pancake toppers or add jazz to a bowl of everyday oatmeal.
Relish it. Fresh cranberry relish is so easy to make and delicious, you’ll wonder why you ever bought canned. Combine 1 1/2 cups of fresh cranberries with one sectioned orange, 1 teaspoon of orange zest and a 1/4 cup of sugar in a food processor until it reaches a saucy, but still slightly chunky consistency; add fresh orange juice to increase sweetness and to thin out. Then, think beyond turkey and use 1 to 2 tablespoons to top fish, like salmon or tuna, or other grilled meats. Leftovers (if there are any!) make a refreshing and seasonal mix-in to vanilla yogurt.
Take an untraditional twist. Cranberries don’t exactly come to mind when you’re making standard sides or appetizers, such as coleslaw or salsa, but why not? For a festive holiday salsa, combine in a food processor: one bag (12 ounces) of fresh cranberries, 1/2 cup diced white onion, 1 seeded jalapeno, the juice of 1 large orange, 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro. Pulse until the salsa reaches desired consistency, and salt lightly to taste. For an alternative to traditional coleslaw, mix a bag of preshredded cabbage with 1/2 cup of chopped cranberries, 1 chopped, unpeeled Gala apple and just enough apple cider vinegar to moisten, adding a couple tablespoons of sugar, if desired. For a little more decadence, top your coleslaw with 1 tablespoon of toasted walnuts and a sprinkle of gorgonzola cheese.
Go with the dried and true. You can enjoy cranberries even after cranberry season has faded by opting for the dried version. Like other dried fruits, you should enjoy dried cranberries only in small quantities (1/4 cup is a serving) to keep calories and added sugar under control. Use them as you would raisins—tossed into hot cereal, sprinkled onto green salads or added to a trail mix made of whole-grain cereal, almonds and cranberries. Dried cranberries are also a great way to add color and sweetness to veggies sautéed in olive oil—just add 1 or 2 tablespoons during the last few minutes of cooking when you’re making carrots or green beans. Dried cranberries can also take ho-hum wild rice to “company’s coming” status with just a handful tossed along with a couple of sliced green onions.
And note that fresh cranberries freeze beautifully—you can hang onto them for up to a year! So, if you crave cranberries, pick up an extra bag or two to stow in the freezer, until you want a taste of the season and a few extra antioxidants. No can opener required!
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