Guest post and photos by Marcia in Rhode Island.
Every family has one. A non-conformist.
In the pine family, juniper is the rebel. Unlike its cousin, the slender and erect red cedar, juniper spreads low to the ground, sloppily, in all directions. Another cousin, white pine, can be lumbered, while juniper is almost impossible to uproot. And a third cousin, hemlock, has feathery soft needles; juniper’s are nasty, vicious little things.
Most of the pine cousins have woody cones that send seeds flying into the wind; the fruits start off as a cluster of fleshy scale, and when they dry out, they look like the familiar pine cones.
Juniper holds its cones tightly on the branches; the scales stay fleshy and look like berries, but they’re not. What we call juniper berries are actually soft purplish “pine cones”.
Years ago, on our farm, we could pick our own juniper berries. The abandoned apple orchard had surrendered to thickets of juniper long before we came there.
Each December after the first light snowstorm, we bundled up the kids and walked to the juniper field. Picking was slow business as we tried to avoid the prickly needles and not crush the soft fruits. Our collecting pail never filled quickly, or completely. And, of course, we got distracted tracking rabbits, fox and turkeys. (That's me in the photo, in my furry hat, with one of my daughters, picking juniper berries thirty years ago.)
We’d put the berries into a pot of simmering water on top of the woodstove, and the woodsy fragrance helped ease the darkness of December.
Though I always knew that juniper berries had culinary uses (gin, pickling spices), I never cooked with them until recently. Juniper pairs well with sauerkraut, wild game, roast duck and “calico beans”, a combination of mashed potatoes and carrots, flavored with thyme and juniper berries. Use it sparingly, for its tang can overpower some dishes.
Juniper features in German, Italian, French, Scandinavian and Russian cuisines. It’s cultivated in several countries, including Italy and Turkey; the bottle in my pantry is from Albania by way of Penzeys (or World Spice Merchants).
Yes, I now have to buy my juniper berries. Our field was eventually shaded by taller species, and no junipers remain.
This winter I’ll have juniper simmering on the wood stove; I’ll cook with it, too, reminded of those December berry-picking walks long ago.
Lamb stew with juniper berries
With rice or noodles, this recipe serves 4-6.
1 lb boneless lamb shoulder stew meat, cut into 1" cubes
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
2 TBS olive oil
1 large shallot, peeled and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp flour
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine
2 cups beef broth
3 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into1/2-inch rounds
4 juniper berries
1 bay leaf
Season the lamb with salt and pepper. In a heavy stew pot, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat, and brown the meat on all sides. With a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a plate. Lower heat to medium and sauté shallots and garlic until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for two minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the wine and deglaze the pot, scraping to incorporate the browned bits into the liquid. Stir in the beef broth. Return meat to pot, adding potatoes, carrots, juniper berries, and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then cover pot and simmer for 2 hours.
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