Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's THAT time of year!

Doesn't that title just make you want to start singing the Christmas Waltz, "It's that time of year when the world falls in love, Ev'ry song you hear seems to say..."? While THAT time of year is rapidly approaching, I'm actually referring to something completely different. Ladies and gentlemen, it's (drum roll please)...CRANBERRY SEASON!

I know, I know. It's October and everyone is pumpkin happy. Don't get me wrong. I like pumpkin foods, especially pie (I would happily eat a whole one), but cranberry season is one of my favorites of the year. A few years ago I was not aware of the fact that there is, indeed, a season when these delightful little flavor balls could be purchased. Ever tried to buy a bag of cranberries in your grocer's produce section mid-June? I have! It's impossible. While there are whole and jellied options available in cans year round, their unprocessed counterparts are only available to purchase from about October through Christmas. (I actually saw the first bags of the season at Costco last week.)
You may wonder how I cope with the berry shortage the other 9 months of the year. It's easy. When cranberries are available for sale in the fall, I stock up and keep them in my freezer. Unlike other berries that can get mushy after being frozen, these little gems don't change at all when they go from fresh, to frozen, back to fresh. The nice part is that you don't have to repackage them in any way. Just toss the bags in the freezer and pull them out as you need them. I do transfer the cranberries to a gallon size resealable bag only after I've opened the large bag size from Costco and not used them all. This makes it easier to get out the amount I need without having to deal with the original unsealable bag.
One note about freezer-life. I've heard it said that a bag of cranberries will last one year in the freezer. To that I say PE SHAW! I've had my current supply for two years now (I bought about 12 pounds back in Nov of 2010) and it's still perfect.
So, in anticipation of all the cranberries I know you are all going to rush out and buy--and since all the other food blogs are loaded with pumpkin recipes--I'm going to post my four favorite cranberry recipes over the next week! Let's start with my favorite...Cranberry Chicken.
Three years ago when I was visiting my dad in Florida (just before boarding a glorious 7-day cruise), his sweet wife shared some of her favorite recipes with me. One of those recipes was Cranberry Chicken. A couple of months later I made the dish for a Sunday dinner when we had guests over. And then I made it for people again...and again...and again...all throughout the year. It got to the point where we'd invite people for dinner and they'd be overjoyed to find out Cranberry Chicken was on the menu. In fact, I started having to double the recipe each time I made it because we and our guests loved it so much.

This dish is super easy to throw together. It has a slightly long cooking time at 45 minutes, but you can prep it in minutes. I've only made one small change to the recipe as it was given to me. Let's take a look at the recipe and then I'll tell you about my change.
Cranberry Chicken
6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 c chopped onion
1 c ketchup
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c maple syrup
zest of a large orange
1 1/2 c fresh cranberries
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken breasts in a baking dish large enough to allow a bit of room around each one. Bake for 20 minutes. While chicken is baking, mix remaining ingredients. Pour over chicken and bake 25 additional minutes. Serve over rice. (Spoon some of the sauce over the rice too!)
See, how simple is that! Remember I told you I've made one change? It's with the chopped onion. The original recipe said to saute the onions before adding to the sauce. I have found this to be completely unnecessary. I did it the first time I made it and never done it again. The dish bakes long enough that the onions get nice and tender in the oven. I don't see any need for the extra work and dirty dish.
Would you like a couple of hints? Oh good. First, the cranberries. You can use them thawed or straight out of your freezer. I never defrost them first. Either way they will get nice and soft while cooking and lots of them will pop. YUMMY! And don't worry, the brown sugar will help tame the natural tartness of the berries.
Second, the sauce. I don't always have an orange on hand for the zest. I try to, but for those times when I don't I use a teaspoon of orange extract instead. I like the zest best, but the extract an o.k. alternative. If you don't have either, no problem. Just move forward without it. Also, I never measure out the syrup. I just eyeball it. I figure if add a bit of extra, OH WELL!
Finally, make sure you give your chicken some room in the pan. I've found that if I put the breasts too close together, they can come out undercooked. Plus, if you don't give them a touch of room, the sauce can't fully coat the meat. I'm not talking about a lot of space, but don't let the breasts touch. You can see from the picture above that I have about a cranberry width--give or take a bit--between each one. If your particular chicken breasts are very large, which mine tend to be, don't hesitate to cut them in to smaller pieces. I find the dish easier for people to manage if they can serve themselves smaller pieces.
Want a money saving hint? You will save money on cranberries if you can buy them in a large (48 oz) bag at a warehouse store rather than buying four individual (12 oz) bags at the grocery store. I'm all for saving pennies where I can!

 That's it favorite cranberry recipe #1. I absolutely adore it and I've never served it to a single person that didn't love it. With cranberries starting to pop up on your grocery store shelves, this is definitely a recipe worth trying. Stay tuned for favorite recipe #2!

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