Spice Up a Traditional Thanksgiving Favorite
Thanksgiving dinner may be the most traditional, never-changing meal of the year.
Turkey. Dressing. Gravy. Mashed Potatoes. A Sweet Potato Something. A Cranberry Something. A Green Veggie Something. Add Biscuits, Pumpkin Pie, a nice wine (Beaujolais Nouveau for me), and whatever else is in your family’s repertoire.
We may tinker with the menu occasionally, but we usually revert back to our traditional dishes.
Still, if you’re looking for a new riff on an old favorite, why not consider adding a jalapeño pepper (or two) to your cranberry relish? The dish won’t be much hotter (unless you want it to be) and it takes little extra preparation time.
Best of all, you’ll have everyone at the table trying to guess why this year’s cranberry relish tastes so much more interesting than last year’s!
Recipe: Cranberry Relish with Jalapeño
Most recipes for Cranberry Relish are quite similar: Throw a package of cranberries into the food processor with a peeled, cut-up orange. Whirl until finely minced, then mix in some sugar. My mother always added apple to hers.
I don’t use the apple, but these days I often add ginger and cayenne pepper (spicy and sweet is a great combination). Sometimes – as in today’s recipe – I substitute jalapeño pepper for the ginger. This is a common variation in the southwestern United States.
This recipe makes about a quart, which I usually figure serves 8 to 12 (some people take only a dab of this dish). Leftovers freeze extremely well. You can also make this recipe ahead of time, freeze, and then thaw on Thanksgiving Day.
- 1 package of fresh cranberries, washed and picked over (12-ounce package; see notes)
- 1 large orange (navel oranges are my preference)
- 1 or 2 jalapeño peppers (you can add more, but then the jalapeño flavor may overwhelm)
- ¼ to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional; to taste)
- ~½ cup sugar (or to taste; many people like this dish to be rather sweet, so if that's you, add more sugar)
- Pick over and wash your cranberries (I usually dump the package into a colander or large sieve, and wash/pick over in the sink under running water).
- Wash the orange and, using a vegetable peeler, remove the outer peel. Avoid cutting so deeply that you get the white pith. You can also use a zester, if you prefer. Roughly chop the peels to make them a bit smaller.
- Remove and discard the white pith from the orange. Section or cut the orange into pieces (removing any of the interior white pith).
- Wash the jalapeño pepper(s), cut off the stem tips, and slice in half lengthwise. Using the tip of a teaspoon, scrap away the seeds and white pith, and discard. Roughly chop the pepper. (Make sure to wash your hands after handling the jalapeño pepper — the oil can burn if you rub it into your eyes.)
- Dump the cranberries, the orange peel and pieces, the jalapeño, the cayenne (if using), and the sugar into the food processor. Process until chunky (don’t turn it into mush). Taste, and add more sugar if needed (see Notes for variation on adding sugar).
- Chill in an airtight container for at least an hour before serving. Or place airtight container in freezer until needed; defrost before serving.
- A mint garnish is nice. So is a slice or two of jalapeño pepper.
- Fresh cranberries used to be packaged in 16-ounce bags. Today’s bags are 12-ounces. Bummer. Be aware of this change if you’re looking at older recipes that use cranberries.
- The traditional recipe always called for one orange per bag of cranberries. So today’s dish will be heavier on the orange (because it has fewer cranberries). I think this is a good thing. In fact, if you like more orange (I sometimes do) you can add another half or even whole orange to the recipe.
- A food processor chops orange peels finely enough in my opinion. But if you want your peel still finer, zest your orange.
- You can leave out the orange peel/zest, but the orange flavor of the finished dish will be diminished.
- If you’re in a hurry you can also skip the step of removing the white pith from the orange. The quality will be somewhat diminished because the pith is somewhat bitter; but additional sugar will mask this.
- The cayenne pepper adds a great dimension to this dish. Even if you don’t like spicy foods, I urge you to try just a bit. You’ll thank me.
- Adding a tablespoon or so of chopped mint leaves to this recipe is a nice variation.
- I often don’t add sugar to the food processor bowl. Rather, after processing the cranberry mixture to the consistency I prefer, I dump the mixture into another bowl and add sugar at that point, tasting as I incorporate it. I prefer not to over-sweeten this dish, and this method allows me to balance the sugar exactly as I want it.
- Before food processors, many people used hand-cranked meat grinders to make Cranberry Relish. My mother did. Making the recipe this way is a bit of a, well, grind (sorry). With the food processor? Easy, peasy.
- As noted, Cranberry Relish freezes extremely well. If you like Cranberry Relish at Christmas, you can prepare a double batch at Thanksgiving and freeze some for that meal.
- In fact, I think this dish tastes better after having been frozen. The flavors mingle and become more mellow.
Although jalapeño peppers aren’t a traditional ingredient in Cranberry Relish, the “ping” they add is interesting enough that most people will enjoy the departure from the usual. But you have to be careful when you start messing with traditional recipes, especially on a holiday like Thanksgiving.
There are three major Thanksgiving cranberry traditions in this country: Cranberry Relish (of the type featured here), Jellied Cranberry Sauce, and Cranberry Jell-O Salad. Some people will eat any cranberry variation happily. Others insist that the variety they grew up eating is the only version worth having.
Cranberry Relish, as you’ve probably figured out, was always on the Thanksgiving table when I was growing up. At Mrs. Kitchen Riffs’ childhood home, it was a Cranberry Jell-O salad. So how do we handle this? Sometimes we just make one or the other. Many years, we make both.
Why both? Well, recall my discussion about the passionate preference people hold for either Hellman’s Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip in American Potato Salad. We acknowledged then that some compromise is necessary in a culinary mixed marriage. At least if you want to live happily and peacefully.
Let the record show that Mrs. Kitchen Riffs and I live very happily and peacefully!
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