A little history: Upon their arrival in North America, the Pilgrims discovered the American Indians eating cranberries twice the size of those found in Europe. Today, these native gems are grown on low, trailing vines in bogs of peat, sand, and clay that are flooded in the winter for protection from the cold. Also called bounceberries (because the ripe ones do) and craneberries (the vine's blossoms resemble the heads of the cranes often found wading through the bogs), this holiday favorite is cultivated mainly in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon.
What they look like: These marble-sized berries are round, shiny, and anywhere from light red to deep scarlet.
Selection tips: Cranberries are usually packaged in 12-ounce plastic bags, so you won't get to choose them individually. Check the see-through to make sure you get brightly and intensely colored berries. Discard any that are soft, shriveled, withered, or discolored, and remove any stems. One 12-ounce bag equals approximately three cups of whole berries.
Storage tips: Tightly wrapped in plastic (or the original, unopened bag), cranberries will keep in the refrigerator for up to two months. For increased longevity, toss the bag in the freezer, where they'll stay fresh for a year. And don't wash them before storing, or they'll spoil.
How to eat them: Traditional sauce aside, these very tart berries work well in pies, cobblers, muffins, chutneys, and relishes. They also complement meat superbly, and mix nicely with other, less tart fruits. The best way to chop fresh or frozen cranberries―which do not need to be defrosted before use―is to use the "pulse" setting on a food processor with a metal blade. If you're cooking the berries, be sure to remove them from the heat when they pop, or they'll start to turn mushy and bitter.
Peak growing season: Harvesting generally occurs between in September and October, with the peak market period running through December.
Health benefits: Cranberries―a good source of vitamins A and C―contain antioxidants and flavonoids that help protect you from cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. They also contain lots of fiber, which aids in digestion and helps lower cholesterol.
Nutritional info: One cup of whole, raw cranberries―a bargain at only 47 calories―provides an impressive 4.0 grams of fiber, along with 0.4 gram of protein, 0.2 gram of fat (none of it saturated), 1.0 milligram of sodium, and no cholesterol.