Bushes from the juniper family can be found rather easily in Western New York. Those found here are most likely classified as Chinese juniper or eastern red cedar bushes, both of which grow well in our climate. The main difference between true juniper and these cousins—of which there are about sixty varieties—is that the true juniper berries pack more flavor. On the downside, they are also found along the edges of cliffs, so accessing juniper’s cousin adjacent to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery or elsewhere in the city is much simpler than risking life and limb after scaling rugged terrain.* All juniper plants share common traits in appearance, flavor, and usage due to the plant’s origin, which can be traced to a time when all continents were one, known as Pangea for those of you who don’t recall seventh-grade geography. So whether your juniper search has you scouring the yards of Buffalo or the shelves at Penzeys Spices, expect the intensity of flavor to vary.
Today, juniper berries are used to season soups and stews, sauces for game, and to create gin and absinthe, among other things. In order to find new uses, let’s start by examining a brief history of juniper. Many texts point to tea made from the ripened black berries as a medicinal asset. As far back as the second century A.D., juniper has been cited as a cleanser of the liver and kidneys. Some holistic medicinal proponents suggest juniper can improve digestion, aid kidney function, and lessen joint pain. It all makes a wonderful case for juniper and fodder for new ideas.
A simple infusion of this spice can create a seasoned vinegar. Toast the berries in a dry pan until shiny, crush them in a spice grinder, add them to a nice white wine vinegar, and allow them to steep for two days. This makes a delicious seasoning; try it on lightly steamed broccoli tossed with pine nuts. You may also want to try utilizing that vinegar in a dressing for a salad of roasted root vegetables, crisp pears, chopped endive, and a bit of soft cheese for a unique and delicious appetizer or side.
Crushing the spice and mixing it with salt and sugar, it can easily become a seasoning for a strongly flavored fish dish, such as swordfish with roasted beets and rutabaga. Exploring unfamiliar spices in a familiar way—such as an addition to salt or infused into vinegar or oil—is a wonderful way to get more out of your pantry while adding intrigue to your home dishes. Developing a home arsenal of interesting trucs, or “little touches,” will prove invaluable. Think of these pantry items as flavors, not just as a salad dressing or fish seasoning, because they can be so much more. Your juniper vinegar can cross over from salad dressing, to sauce addition, to cocktail ingredient.
Juniper is the driving spice in most gin. Most juniper used in distillates does not come from this country, but artisan producers are using indigenous juniper with wonderful results. Wisconsin’s Death’s Door is using local Washington Island juniper berries from its hometown to flavor their gin. What started as a method for using the local juniper crop has turned into an incredible product being used to great acclaim in cocktail bars and retail outlets across the country.
For the adventurous home “mixologist,” making a home-seasoned cocktail is a simple process. Infuse a base spirit of your choice with some toasted juniper berries, perhaps a bit of stripped orange zest, fennel seed, or even a small branch of the bush the berries came from. Allow the infusion to steep for a week or so, as more character emerges with time. When it is seasoned to taste, simply strain out the solids and serve your infused spirit with a bit of Pastis or Pernod, season with the juniper vinegar, chill over ice, and garnish with a flamed orange rind. This is a cocktail idea that takes some commitment but can be a fun project for amateur and pro mixologists alike, and is sure to impress for its versatile use of juniper as well as sheer finesse.
Take a hard look at your pantry and break down the walls and rules. Who knows? With a curious palate you could make the next big culinary breakthrough—or at least have a little fun exploring a new world of flavor.
*Some juniper bushes are poisonous. When foraging or using wild ingredients, be safe, and check with an expert before consuming. Also, be conscientious when taking wild ingredients from nature so as not to hurt or kill the plant; the rule of thumb is to take one for every three you leave behind. Finally, if using anything from the outdoors, be sure it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides.
This lovely article appeared in the January issue of Buffalo Spree Magazine.