Every year, Texans dread the onslaught of cedar pollen that wreaks havoc on everyone’s respiratory system for the two months or so that the mountain cedar trees engage in their mating ritual. Cedar fever, with its flu-like symptoms that are mostly unresponsive to any over-the-counter medications, makes mountain cedar a much maligned reputation: a brush tree perhaps even more despised than the lowly mesquite tree. The mountain cedar is, however, not really cedar. It’s actually a member of the juniper family: Juniperus ashei. Juniper trees of all varieties have male and female cones (the individual trees are either male or female). The male cones are responsible for the pollen that causes Texans so much misery during cedar season. The female cone has scales that grow close together, giving it the appearance of a berry; hence its common name of juniper berry. Although Texans have a valid reason for distrusting and despising the Juniper tree, the tree has culinary properties that may lend it redeeming qualities. The use of the Juniper berry as a spice is increasing in popularity in the United States. People in Texas actually forage the berries of the Juniper tree and use it to season their food and make medicinals.
Although the berry of native Texas juniperus ashei is edible and suitable for many uses in the kitchen, the juniper berry most
commonly used as a spice comes from the Juniperus communis. Known to most American’s in the form of the alcoholic beverage gin, which also comes from the Juniperus communis, the berry is increasing in popularity as a spice. It’s appearing in an increasing number of recipes, it’s easier to find in local grocery stores, and it was featured as an ingredient in President Trump’s inaugural dinner as president:
The three-course meal will commence with Maine lobster and Gulf shrimp in a saffron sauce, followed by Virginia beef with a dark chocolate and juniper jus with potato gratin. Dessert is a chocolate soufflé with cherry vanilla ice cream, and each dish is paired with a specific wine or champagne—although Trump himself does not drink alcohol.
In our increasing culinary appreciation of the juniper berry, Americans are catching up with German and Scandinavian cooks who discovered the pleasures of spicing up their cooking with this berry generations ago. German cooks use juniper berry to enhance the flavor of sauerkraut, and Scandinavian cooks use it to complement meat, as well as in some desserts. The aromatic berries taste earthy, sharp, kind of peppery, but also kind of fruity, and are best used in small amounts – think of less as more. Despite their unique flavor (some people think the berries have a pine, resin-like quality to them), when used with the right flavor affinities, juniper berries add depth and a bit of excitement flavor to dishes in which they are used.
Just a note about braising: braising recipes usually include a step that requires the meat to be seared on both sides before the rest of the ingredients are added. One reason people like to sear meat is that they think it seals in juices. Many experts, however, including Harold McKee (who would ever be want to be without his On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore in the Kitchen?) say that although searing or browning meat before braising may impart a more complex flavor because of the malliard reaction, it does not actually seal in the juices. Some people actually like the more subtle, delicate flavor of dish prepared without searing the meat. I like dishes prepared either way. I sometimes sear the meat and caramelize the onions and other vegetables before I braise them, and other times choose not to. If you are a consistent sear-er of meat, then by all means adjust this recipe to suit your preferences! It’s will be delicious either way!
One more note: I’m working on increasing my photography skills. I had pictures of the roast on plates with the sides I served this particular evening (scalloped turnips and a leafy, green salad); however, many of my pictures were unsuitable for public viewing. I have a new camera to be delivered soon, though, so I can get away from using my iPhone exclusively for photographing food. I’ll be experimenting with that camera, food styling, and such in the next few weeks. I plan to document my progress on this blog. Let’s hope we see some visual improvement!
I like to add juniper berry as a finishing seasoning sometimes, such as on flat bread or scalloped potatoes. I also like to add a few (but only a few) to a grinder with black, green, and white peppercorns for a different flavor pepper blend. Because it complements meat so well, I like to use it is to make a simple rub for a roast. I keep thinking I’m going to use it in a cake or some other dessert, but I’ve just not taken the time do try it in a sweet dish. When I do, I’ll be sure to post the recipe (if the recipe is successful!).
The nice thing about the following roast recipe is that it can be cooked slowly, allowing time for you to do other things. Served with a nice salad, and turnips or potatoes, this juniper berry seasoned beef makes a simple, yet elegant meal.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil or beef tallow
- 1 3-4 lb chuck roast
- 14 dried juniper berries, ground
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, ground
- 2 teaspoons smoked salt
- 1 teaspoon dried sugar cane juice (I use Zulka, which is relatively inexpensive and easily available.)
- Pepper to taste
- ½ red onion, thinly sliced, with slices roughly chopped
- ½ cup red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or merlot)
- Spread the olive oil, or melt the beef tallow, in a dutch oven on the stove top. In a spice or coffee grinder, finely grind the juniper berries, and then the rosemary. Mix the ground berries and rosemary with the smoked salt and sugar. Spread half of the rub on one each side of the chuck roast. Sprinkle pepper over the meat, to taste. Place the meat in the prepared pan. Sprinkle the sliced red onion evenly over the surface of the roast. Pour the ½ cup wine over the meat. Place the lid on the dutch oven and cook on the stove top over low heat for two hours, or until tender. Remove the finished meat to a platter. Increase the temperature under the dutch oven until the wine and meat drippings come to a simmer; simmer until the liquid coats the back of a spoon. Slice the meat and drizzle with the reduced au jus as you plate it.