I grew up in southeast Wisconsin, sandwiched just between “Mill-e-wah-que”and Chicago. And then I went to college in Minneapolis, about a 6-hour drive from home. Without a car my first few years there, I carpooled with lots of people, dehydrating myself for days ahead of time so as not to reveal the issues I have with what I believe to be squirrel-sized bladder.
But as time went on, I got my own car, and every now and then I’d make this trip myself. Before the days of ipods, I’d make mix CDs of old favorites like Destiny’s Child or Coldplay and sing them to myself at the top of my lungs. (“NObody Said it was Eeeaazay!….”) After all, the middle of Wisconsin boasts approximately 3 radio stations at any given point: and they’re all country. On one trip, I counted all the Subways marked at the exits. On another, all the McDonalds. There’s not a whole lot to look at along the way.
Right around the half-way point of the trip is a teeny tiny town called Warrens. And as you pass Warrens, you see a billboard for the World’s Largest Cranberry Festival. Yeah…the largest in the world.
In my non-cooking collegiate days, I scoffed. A cranberry festival? Lame. Who would ever go to a cranberry festival? What do you do?…Dress up like a cranberry? Is there a cranberry parade? Do you harvest cranberries?
And then I started cooking. And caring where food came from. And still I’d pass the Warrens’ Cranberry-Fest sign…but my feelings towards it started to change. I became curious. Maybe they show you different ways to cook cranberries. Maybe you can buy cranberries in bulk for cheap. Maybe you DO get to harvest cranberries!
Suddenly, that festival sounded awesome. And as Eric entered my life, we’d pass Warrens while going to and from my parents’ house, and I’d
whine suggest that we should definitely go. I would tell him about the good eating we’d do. And maybe there’d be antiques! We could camp out in the neighboring state park. What a great weekend getaway. And he, eventually and skeptically, agreed.
Along came the last week of September. We were set to go. And then we looked at the forecast. And as it is wont to do in Wisconsin in late September, it was supposed to rain and be like 38*. Blech. We didn’t go. Another year, another Cran-fest missed.
Then, we determined that 2011 would be it. We’d finally go. And then I got pregnant and felt like death for most of September and October. Sleep in a tent? No thank you.
So, there’s that. Alas, we have never been to Cran-fest. (cue music) Maybe not today… maybe not tomorrow…but someday…we will take humble exit 135 and follow the signs to discover the joy of The Largest Cranberry Festival in the World. Someday.
Truly, it is our Cran-fest Destiny.
In our honor of that dream I stockpiled cranberries until they were coming out of my freezer’s ears. They’re so easy to freeze that I kind of go crazy when they’re in season. While there’s this delicious cranberry upside-down cake and these cranberry cheese cake bars, I love to use cranberries in savory dishes.
One of our favorites is chicken with a cranberry thyme pan sauce. The sauce is a happy combination of cranberries and juice, stock, brown sugar, and cayenne. There is a really delicate balance of tart, sweet, and hot going on here – kind of like the cast of Saved by the Bell. The thyme rounds out the flavors of this sauce perfectly and goes so well with the chicken…or with bread or rice or a spoon, however you choose to get this sauce into your mouth. Eat this with mashed potatoes. Or better yet, with wild rice and celebrate the true Midwesterner in you. This goes down so winter-richly with a glass of red wine, or if you’re like me and a baby is UFC cage-fighting within your abdomen, pour yourself a glass of cranberry juice and pretend.
(recipe adapted from Lunds & Byerly's Real Food Magazine)
(yields 4 servings)
Over the year or so that I've made this meal, I've adapted it in many ways. Instead of breading the chicken with flour, salt, and pepper and then pounding it thin, I simply cut the chicken breasts in half lengthwise and saute them in olive oil. (I've even grilled the chicken breasts, a few times and that was great too). Additionally, I usually use dried thyme unless I have fresh around.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half lengthwise
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. onion, chopped (about 1 medium onion)
1 tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped OR 1 tsp. dried thyme
2 c. cranberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, do not thaw first)
1 c. cranberry juice cocktail*
1 c. chicken stock
4 tbsp. brown sugar
1 big pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
Heat olive oil in a pan over medium-low heat. Add halved chicken breasts. Brown on every side, turning frequently, until chicken breasts are no longer pink in the middle.
Remove chicken from the pan and set aside, covered tightly with foil.
In the same pan, (and you can add a smidge more olive oil here if you want), add the onion and thyme. Saute over low heat.
After about 4 minutes (or when onions are soft and golden), add the cranberries, cranberry juice, stock, brown sugar, cayenne, and salt.
Bring to a simmer and cook over medium-high heat until cranberries soften and the sauce thickens.
If the chicken has cooled considerably, you can put the chicken back in the pan to reheat.
Otherwise, pour sauce over plated chicken breasts.
**Note about cranberry juice cocktail: I don't buy this very often, and you usually have to buy a big bottle. I like to freeze the remainder of my bottle as ice cubes and then pull them out of the freezer when I make this meal.