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December is the month to get together with family and friends and enjoy some special holiday treats. However, many of these treats and rich and fattening, and we often end up overindulging in them. Cranberries, often associated with the holiday season, are an exception. Not only do the tangy berries taste great in baked goods, savory dishes, or by the glassful, the little red gems are nutritional powerhouses.

Cranberries are low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in antioxidants. They are packed with vitamin C, and research shows that they help fight cancer and heart disease. Cranberry juice has been proven to be beneficial for the urinary tract.

Cranberries are named after the shape of the shrub’s pale pink blossoms, which resemble the heads of the cranes often seen wading through cranberry bogs. Sometimes, they are also called bounce berries because ripe ones bounce.

Cranberry is a unique fruit. It can only grow and survive under a very special combination of factors: it requires an acid peat soil, an adequate fresh water supply, and sand. If they get proper care, cranberry vines can continue to produce indefinitely. There are cranberry marshes that have been producing crops for more than 100 years!

Just like apples, there are many varieties of cranberries, but the differences between them are subtle. The varieties differ in size, color, keeping quality of berry, time of ripening, hardiness, and suitability of the vine to certain climates.

Fresh cranberries are more plentiful in November through January and are usually sold in bags. Unlike most other berries, they are firm, and likely to be in good condition. Always check the bag for firmness and good red color before buying. The bag could contain a few pale berries and bits of debris.

Before cooking fresh cranberries, it is important to clean and pick over cranberries by placing them in a basin or sink full of cold water; twigs, leaves, and unripe berries will float to the surface. Any cranberries that are discolored or shriveled should also be discarded. This process should be done quickly, though, as you don’t want to soak the berries.

Since fresh cranberries are available only from November to January, I buy extra bags and freeze them for year-round use. They freeze well for up to a year, and frozen berries can be used in cooking without thawing.

For most tastes, cranberries are too tart to be eaten on their own, but they pair wonderfully with other fruit such as apples. Besides being vital to a complete Thanksgiving meal, cranberries are most often used in muffins and other baked goods, compotes, relishes, chutneys, and fruit desserts such as cobblers. While cooking dal, rasam, or vegetables I sneak in a handful of fresh cranberries for a tart, refreshing flavor, and to boost the nutrition of the recipe.

Last week when I was cooking potatoes, I ran out of tomatoes, but had a bag of fresh cranberries handy. So I substituted tomatoes with cranberries in this recipe. The cranberry masala was a pleasant variation that my family enjoyed.

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3 potatoes
1 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ginger paste
1 red onion (diced)
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon red chili powder
(or as desired)
¾ teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste

Bake potatoes, peel, and dice into one-inch cubes. Keep aside.

Heat a pan with oil and add cumin seeds and ginger. Sauté for a minute till the mix changes color. Add onions and cook till they turn brown. Add cranberries and ¼ cup water. Cook it well for 3-4 minutes. Puree this onion and cranberry mix and mix it with the diced potatoes, garam masala, chili powder, salt, and sugar. Cook on low heat for 4-5 minutes till they are coated well with the masala.

You may have to stir often to prevent burning.

Serve piping hot with chapati or tortilla.

Hema’s Hints: You may add chickpeas instead of potatoes for variety.

Try this quick and easy garam masala recipe for a refreshing change.

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Makes 4 tablespoons
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
2 cardamom pods (whole)
10 black peppers (whole)
6 cloves
2 one-inch cinnamon sticks

Heat a frying pan and place all the spices in it. Roast for 3-4 minutes till a fragrant aroma is released. Let it cool for 5-7 minutes. Make a fine powder in a coffee grinder or spice grinder (a coffee grinder used only for spices).

Hema’s Hints: This spice blend can be used in any recipe, which calls for an assortment of spices.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show “Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.”