If you had seen my spice cupboard in 2005, you might have laughed.
A half-empty cinnamon bottle, used vigorously during the holiday season, then not touched for months. The same was true for the nutmeg and cloves. I think I may even have owned a squat Pumpkin Pie Spice. Honestly, I don't even know what Italian Seasoning is, but I kept it. Iodized salt. Ground black pepper.
That was it.
Now, the spice drawer in our pull-out pantry is stuffed full of little bags and mismatched glass jars: smoked paprika; gomashio for poached eggs on brown rice; star anise; turmeric; dried lavender; fresh vanilla beans. We still have cinnamon, but it's from Saigon instead of Schilling. Those holiday cookies taste a hell of a lot better now, even if they are gluten-free.
I really don't think I would have discovered the world of spices without letting go of gluten.
It's too easy to rely on old standards when you think you can eat everything. It was only when an entire world of food was closed to me that I became voraciously interested in every food I could eat.
The other day, my friend Sharon and I walked into World Spice here in Seattle. The mingled smells of cumin and fenugreek, lemongrass and mustard seeds, nigella and sumac made us both stop and smell, smile at each other, then smell again. Honestly, every time I walk into that store, I slow down. I lift lids and breathe in, close them up and wonder what I would cook with that spice, move to the right and lift another lid. It's meditation through inhalation.
At the counter, I asked for two ounces of juniper berries, among other spices and herbs. When we left the store, Sharon said, "What are you going to do with juniper berries? I would never buy those."
Juniper berries have a clean taste, refreshing, like wind coming off cold mountains. Junipers are conifers, as are Douglas firs and pines, so juniper berries have something akin to a Christmas-tree fragrance. Alpine cultures in Europe tend to use juniper berries more often than Americans do. Think reindeer, wild game birds, pâtés, and anything with sauerkraut--hearty foods and winter dishes.
What to Do With Juniper Berries
My husband makes a venison osso bucco with blackberry sauce that makes me long for January in the middle of summer. Juniper berries are part of the flavoring. He also likes to crush a couple of juniper berries and throw them into the salt and sugar mixture he covers the salmon with when he makes gravlax.
Try mixing juniper berries in with your next dish made with beef, cabbage, duck, lamb, pork, or red wine.
Or, as my friend Shuna Fish Lydon, the pastry chef guru who writes Eggbeater, suggested to me on Twitter: "Grind juniper berries with raw sugar in spice grinder, then add it to meringue for pavlova with warm berry compote." Yes, please.
"The once humble juniper berry is enjoying a renaissance of its ancient popularity as a seasoning for game, as the country's top restaurants list venison, squab, pheasant and rabbit on their menus. A few juniper berries will reduce the wild flavor of these meats and will add the pleasant tartness long associated with Germanic dishes, such as sauerbraten, stuffed goose and beef stews. Juniper tea is a centuries old hangover remedy."
It's funny that juniper tea is considered a hangover remedy, since gin is a distilled grain spirit, flavored with juniper berries.
That's right. You've tasted juniper berries in liquid form. Why not be adventurous and add them to your food instead?