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All About Juniper Berries

Not many spices come with a warning label but juniper berries could use one: Not to be ingested by pregnant women, children under 12 and those with breast cancer or kidney disease.  That said, read on if you would like to know more about this common plant but uncommon spice.

juniper berries photo

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All About Juniper Berries

by Sandra Bowens


Perhaps you aren't familiar with juniper berries as a recipe ingredient but if you have ever indulged in a gin and tonic, you have tasted them. Pungent and piney, juniper is what gives gin its unique flavor.

Even if you have never tasted gin, you have probably seen juniper growing. This native of Europe, Juniperus communis, has become naturalized in North America to the point of near-weed status. Common juniper is a shrubby evergreen often cultivated as a dwarf tree but, left unfettered, it may reach heights of 20 feet or more. The berries are small, round fruits that take two or three years to ripen from green to a deep blue or purple.  

Urban foragers in North America may be disappointed with attempts to harvest their own crops. The finest juniper berries, those best suited to culinary use, come from Macedonia and Albania. You may find the spice in a well-stocked supermarket but more likely you will need to seek out a mail order source. Buy juniper berries in small quantities. Unlike other whole spices, they will become tasteless after long storage. 
Juniper berries are often associated with wild game cooking although they compliment beef and pork as well. They are sometimes used in sauerkraut and would not be out of place with other hearty vegetables. Think of juniper berries for marinades and sauces particularly those with black pepper, garlic, thyme, or rosemary.   

The dried berries should be crushed well just before using as the flavor will decline rapidly once exposed to the air. You won't need many, three or four of the berries will flavor most dishes without overpowering the main ingredient or other seasonings.     

One of juniper's "active ingredients" is terpinen-4-ol, a known diuretic that causes irritation to kidney functions. The potential for this reaction is why pregnant women and those suffering from kidney ailments are warned away from the plant. Found in all parts of the tree, terpinin-4-ol is a component of juniper's volatile oils and is most potent in the fresh berries. By the time the berries are dried and cured, these oils have deteriorated.    

Juniper has long been used for medicinal purposes both internally and externally. Burning the branches was thought to purify the air while applying a poultice relieved a number of maladies and wounds. Juniper berries are said to stimulate the appetite but also to serve as a cleansing tonic to the digestive system. 

This enchanting folk tale reported in Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs may be the reason that the juniper has come to symbolize protection:  "The plant's pungent aroma has long recommended it for driving away evil spirits and disease. Legend has it that juniper planted beside the front door will keep out witches; the only way for a witch to get past the plant was by correctly counting its needles."    

Calico Carrots  

3 medium carrots (12 ounces), trimmed and peeled

2 medium potatoes (8 ounces), preferably Yukon Gold, peeled

1/4 cup olive oil

1 shallot, halved and sliced thin (1/4 cup)

1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme, divided

4 juniper berries, crushed fine

1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper, to taste 

Arrange a saucepan and steamer basket over simmering water. Cut the carrots and potatoes into similarly sized pieces so that they will cook evenly. Transfer to steamer basket; cover and cook until the tip of a knife will pierce the centers with ease, about 20 minutes.  

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, half of the thyme and the juniper berries. (This will seem like too much oil but in the end it will be used to dress the carrots and potatoes.) Cook slowly, stirring often, until the shallots are very soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Set aside but keep warm. 

When the carrots and potatoes are cooked through, transfer them to a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the vinegar and season with the salt and pepper. Use a potato masher or large fork to smash the vegetables into a rough texture that still shows some lumps of orange and white (the "calico" in the name).  Taste this mixture for salt and pepper. Adjust if necessary.  

Stir the remaining thyme into the cooked shallot mixture and pour the dressing over the carrots and potatoes. Mix thoroughly but lightly, again to preserve the separate orange and white colors. Serve hot.  

Makes 4 servings.


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