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Cooking with something new: Juniper berries

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Juniper berries are used in many European recipes for roasts and wild game. They also give gin its predominent flavor.

Juniper berries are used in many European recipes for roasts and wild game. They also give gin its predominent flavor. by Sara Shepherd

I could write pages about how crazy my Christmas Eve/Christmas Day working/celebrating/driving/cooking schedule ended up this year, but I’ll stick to the part that involves juniper berries.

Long story short, I had to find a fairly simple slow-cooking recipe for Christmas dinner, or else. Regular pot roast didn’t seem special enough, and making braised lamb shanks was tempting but seemed daunting for six. When I found this recipe for baeckeoffe — a traditional Alsatian stew of lamb, pork and beef marinated a full day in wine — I knew it would be perfect. I also knew I didn’t have time to go on a wild goose chase for juniper berries, a key ingredient, but figured surely Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza (where we were headed for a pre-Christmas family outing anyway) would have some somewhere. Williams-Sonoma, $5, bingo!

I ended up with a fantastic, hearty Christmas dinner (which, sadly, I didn’t have time to take pictures of) — and a jar of juniper berries I hadn’t even put a dent in.

Last weekend I took to the web to find out what else I could make with the strange little spheres, which taste like pine tree if eaten whole but are much more subtle ground up or used for flavoring only, like dried bay leaves. Juniper berries — which provide the predominant flavor in gin — turned up in all kinds of European roasts and wild game dishes (which makes sense because of the woodsy flavor), plus a couple desserts that, honestly, didn’t sound very good.

This Italian pork roast, which I cooked for dinner Sunday, was delicious, super-easy and definitely worth sharing. I threw in potatoes and baby carrots for the last half hour of cooking to make a full meal.

The only problem? Even after using extra in the recipe — and having some roll away while taking photos — I still have an awful lot of juniper berries. I'm not sure about the practicality of nasturtiums in a gin and tonic, but if I decide to try this very tempting-looking one, at least I have the juniper berries.

Pork Roast Braised with Milk and Fresh Herbs (Maiale al Latte). In addition to fresh rosemary and sage, juniper berries help flavor the meat and sauce.

Pork Roast Braised with Milk and Fresh Herbs (Maiale al Latte). In addition to fresh rosemary and sage, juniper berries help flavor the meat and sauce. by Sara Shepherd

Pork Roast Braised with Milk and Fresh Herbs (Maiale al Latte)

Simmering a pork roast with milk and a generous handful of herbs results in very tender meat with rich, silky juices. Many Italians will leave the milk curds that form alongside the meat where they are, but Ferrigno strains them out for a more refined sauce.

Start to finish: 3 ¼ hours (25 minutes active)

Servings: 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 (4 1/2- to 5-pound) boneless pork shoulder roast (without skin), tied

3 juniper berries, crushed

2 large rosemary sprigs

2 large sage sprigs

1 sprig fresh or 4 dried California bay leaves

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 cups whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle.

Heat oil in a wide 5- to 6-quart ovenproof heavy pot over medium heat until it shimmers, then lightly brown roast on all sides with juniper berries and herbs, 8 to 10 minutes total. Add garlic and sprinkle roast with sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then cook until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Pour wine over roast and briskly simmer until reduced by half. Pour milk over roast and bring to a bare simmer.

Cover pot and braise in oven, turning roast occasionally, until tender (milk will form curds), 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Transfer roast to a carving board and loosely cover. Strain juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl (discard solids), reserving pot, and skim off fat. Return juices to pot and boil until flavorful and reduced to about 2 cups. Season with sea salt and pepper. Slice roast and serve moistened with juices.

Note: The pork can be braised 1 day ahead and chilled in liquid, uncovered until cool, then covered. To serve, bring to room temperature, then reheat and proceed with recipe.

(Recipe by Ursula Ferrigno from April 2008 issue of Gourmet, as listed at epicurious.com)

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