With Labor Day now behind us, it's time to embrace fall in all its glory. For me this means latkes bubbling away in oil (yes, they're more than just holiday food), chilly nights tucked under gloriously thick down comforters, and perhaps most importantly, stews and braises on a weekly basis. As we put away our tomato plants and move our Dutch ovens to a new home on the stove, we owe it to ourselves to consider how best to honor the season's cooking.
This is time to simmer meals for hours, to dine on dark, flavorful flesh and crisp roasted vegetables. While spring and summer cooking are characterized by market-driven spontaneity, fall and winter meals demand an understanding of the alchemical mysteries of the stew pot and oven. As far as I'm concerned, now more than ever is the time to head to the spice cupboard; it's when we look to nature's more exotic offerings to magically transform its humble ones.
No season is more fitting for juniper berries, an alpine conifer that lends a clean, sweet flavor to complement red meats and the season's milder vegetables. Its roots lie in Scandinavian cooking, but I've found it perfect for all sorts of cold weather fare. It's the autumnal answer to lemon juice, adding the touch of brightness heavier meals so often require. Juniper evokes the crisp air of pine-covered mountaintops, and is so refreshing I like to nibble on the berries as a snack.
How Do You Use It?
Like asafoetida, juniper can't help but evoke a sense of place, and it makes everything feel like it was prepared on a serene mountaintop with a wood-burning stove. It tastes something like rosemary crossed with a berry. Its resinous-but-not-too-piney flavor is the perfect thing to cut through fat or otherwise overwhelmingly strong flavors. It's most at home with game, be it avian or mammal, as it subdues excessive gaminess and practically transports tasters to 4 a.m. hunting grounds.
But when I moved from Chicago, I lost my game connection. Now I must rely on duck and bison from the grocery store, but a little juniper makes them taste just as exotic as that glorious venison stew from winters past. Beyond game, juniper is a welcome accent to beef, pork, bacon, and lamb in many forms, and it also brings its transformative qualities to meager (though noble) vegetables like cabbage, onions, and leeks.
Recipes including juniper aren't the most common, but they can be added ad hoc to European-style stews, braises, marinades, and pan sauces that rely on rosemary, thyme, garlic, shallots (their spice affinities) or red wine and browned meat. I typically go with four to ten berries, depending on how much I want their flavor to come through. Unless used to excess, they won't dominate a dish, but will bring charming alpine notes to the background.
Juniper also has a strong affinity for vinegar and vinegary foods. While summer's batch of pickled red onions were steeped with chiles, their brine now receives some crushed berries. Store-bought pickles still benefit from some juniper added to the brine, and taste delicious after a few days (both the pickles and the juniper). Foods cooked with vinegar, like corned beef, sauerbraten, and the aforementioned pan sauces benefit from juniper as a welcome relief from otherwise overbearing acidic tang. Juniper is also perfect with smoked meats.
The grill is no mere accessory to summer; it easily becomes fall's smoker when accompanied by a heavy coat, some meat rubbed with crushed juniper, and a mug of warm apple cider. Custard-based desserts do well with juniper's sweet resin: Your autumnal ice creams or crème brûlées will thank you.
Dried berries are too moist for the spice grinder. They're best crushed in a mortar and pestle, or better yet, with your hands. Drop them in a food grade infuser bag or a tea ball before adding them to pot, or be prepared to strain. Because their skins are so thin, they lose their flavor much faster than other whole spices. Purchase small quantities whole and replenish frequently. Finding ways to use them won't be too difficult; the upcoming season begs for their inclusion.
Where to Find Juniper
Because their flavor fades quickly, it's especially important to source them well. If you're the foraging type, the fresh berries may be available near you. Do keep in mind that not all varieties are edible, so check a guide before picking with abandon. For those of us without convenient conifers nearby, Penzeys ($3 an ounce) and The Spice House ($2 an ounce) are your best options.