It seems so fitting that the nature of cranberries is bittersweet, as they are the final fruit of the season. When cranberries appear in markets, I know the holidays are galloping near.

Robust, round, oblong or pear-shaped, and varying in color from pink to ruby red, cranberries were nicknamed "bounce berries" because they hop and skip when they roll off the counter onto the floor. The name itself evolved from "craneberries," inspired by sandhill cranes, whose heads atop their elegant necks resemble the berries on their long, thin vines. Brilliant, crisp and tart, they add snap and color to otherwise dull wintry meals.

Long before white colonists arrived in our region, Native Americans relied on cranberries to preserve animals, dye fabrics and treat wounds in poultices. They pounded the berries with meat to make pemmican, which nourished families through the harsh winters, and simmered cranberries into soups and stews. European settlers cultivated cranberries for savory meat dishes, sweet jellies and juice for wine and vinegar. The cranberry's high vitamin C content was a sure defense against scurvy.

Today, central Wisconsin is the fresh cranberry capital of the world, capturing more than 60% of the market, much of it exported to Europe and Japan. New Jersey and Massachusetts grow plenty of cranberries, too, but those are mostly processed into dried fruit, jelly and juice.

The cranberry plant is well suited to Wisconsin's wetlands, water-soaked areas that create transition points between dry land and open water. The plants don't grow directly in the water, but lay their roots at the edge, thriving in the alternating layers of peat, sand, clay and rock. Add the cold winters and mild summers and the growing conditions are perfect.

Cranberries have evolved to contain a tiny air pocket that allows them to float and disperse through the marshes to reseed. This bobbing ability is a boon to the commercial farmers, who flood their fields to make it easier for mechanical beaters to detach the berries from their vines before being scooped up by huge booms and raked or vacuumed into trucks.

Unlike the enormous cranberry growers, the Ruesch Century Farm, a fourth-generation certified organic operation in central Wisconsin, uses the "dry method" to rake the ripe berries directly off their vines from the fields. It's a gentler process that keeps the berries from absorbing water, swelling and then shrinking or becoming too soft while in storage. "Drying and then cooling the berries right as they're harvested ensures a longer shelf life," owner Brian Ruesch has said.

The truly fresh local berries in our markets are firmer and less tannic than the frozen berries. They add pops of color to wild rice pilafs, salads, roasted poultry and meat, pan-seared fish, and make a wonderful garnish to creamy soups. I like to whir cranberries into smoothies, swirl them into yogurt, simmer them into oatmeal and toss them into dough for cookies, muffins, cakes, breads, tarts and pies.

Fresh cranberries will keep nicely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer. A serving is about 1/2 cup, and a 12-ounce bag will be enough to make a fresh or cooked sauce for about 8 to 10 people. Figure about 1/4 cup of fresh cranberries when enjoying them fresh right out of the bag; a little goes a long way. For baked goods, substitute fresh cranberries for the same amount of other fruit, but increase the amount of sugar to taste.

The season for fresh cranberries is NOW and they are good for so much more than sauce. Every year, their appearance sparks memories of holidays past. Encoded in the tart-sweet essence of this iconic fruit is a message: This season is for thanks and giving.

Pork Chops with Cranberries

Serves 4.

Note: Pork and cranberries are a fabulous combination; the fruit's tang softens the gamy richness of the meat. In this recipe, cranberries, apples and rosemary add verve to the complex sauce. Taste before serving to be sure the flavors are balanced. If it's a little tart, add a spoonful of honey. Make sure to sear the pork to develop a crisp crust before making the sauce. Those browned bits on the bottom of the pan are key to its flavor. The darker the color, the deeper the sauce. From Beth Dooley.

• Coarse salt

• Freshly ground black pepper

• 2 bone-in pork chops, about 1 1/2 in. thick (about 1 lb. each)

• 1 tbsp. olive oil

• 2 cloves garlic, smashed

• 2 tbsp. brandy, optional

• 1/2 c. apple cider

• 2 c. cranberries

• 1 tart apple, cored and cut into 1/2-in. slices

• 2 to 3 large sprigs fresh rosemary

• 1 tbsp. butter

• 1/2 tsp. honey, to taste


Generously season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. Sear the pork chops until very brown, about 3 minutes per side. Add the garlic to the pan, then, using tongs to hold the chops, sear their fatty edges for about 1 minute each. Transfer the pork to a plate.

Add the brandy and apple cider to the pan, stirring to scrape up any dark bits that cling to the bottom and let this simmer until reduced by half. Add the cranberries, apple and rosemary and simmer another 30 seconds. If the pan is looking dry, add another splash of cider.

Move the cranberries to the sides of the pan and return the pork to the center of the pan. Cover, lower the heat and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes, or until the meat reaches about 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (Remember that the temperature will rise as it rests.) Transfer the pork to a cutting board and allow it to rest for about 5 minutes.

Add the butter and honey to the pan, stirring until the butter melts and coats the cranberries. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve the pork with the cranberries and garnish with rosemary.

Gingered Fresh Cranberry Relish

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Note: Using a food processor or blender, this comes together in a flash. From Beth Dooley.

• 2 c. fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted

• 2 tbsp. orange zest

• 1/4 c. fresh orange juice

• 1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger

• 1/4 c. honey, or to taste


Place all the ingredients into a blender or food processor and chop until fine. Taste and adjust the flavors. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator; it will keep at least a week.

Real Cranberry Sauce

Makes about 2 cups.

Note: Sorry, no canned version holds a candle to this bright-tasting scratch-made sauce. Do not sweeten until after the berries have popped; sugar makes them toughen. You can add a chopped apple or pear for variety. From Beth Dooley.

• 3 c. fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted

• 1/2 c. apple cider

• 1/4 c. honey or maple syrup, to taste


Put the cranberries and cider into a small saucepan. Set over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the berries have popped open, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the honey or maple syrup to taste. Allow to cool before transferring to a covered container. The sauce will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator in a covered container.

Fresh Cranberry-Orange Pound Cake

Makes 1 (9- by 3-inch) pound cake.

Note: This simple old-fashioned pound cake is rich and buttery and bright with fresh cranberries. Delicious with afternoon tea and toasted for breakfast, too. From Beth Dooley.

• 2 c. flour

• 1/4 tsp. baking powder

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

• Grated rind of 1 small orange

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 1 c. sugar

• 4 eggs, well beaten

• 1 c. coarsely chopped cranberries


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 9- by 3-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, cream the butter, then beat in the orange zest and the vanilla. Beat in the sugar until the butter looks light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs. The mixture will look separated. Fold in the dry ingredients to create a thick batter. Fold in the cranberries and then pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes up clean, about 1 hour. Cool about 10 minutes in the pan before removing and cooling completely on a wire rack.