The Alsatian stew, choucroute garnie, deserves some kind of cold weather food medal. In the darkest depths of winter we all crave figurative as well as literal warmth—call it hygge if you must—and this pot of sauerkraut, white wine, stock, sausage and various smoked meats, is as luscious and warming as a cashmere sweater. But one of the keys to making this dish is to seed the bed of kraut with juniper berries. The piney, earthy note is subtle, but it is definitive.
Juniper? Yes, the same juniper that makes gin taste like gin. The berries can also be used in food recipes. And recently, I’ve found myself increasingly pulling out my jar of juniper berries from the back of my spice cabinet. I blame the bomb cyclone and its frigid temperatures.
But before I go further, let’s clear up a few things. Juniper berries are not, in fact, berries at all, but are really tiny pinecones. They come from something like fifty different types of cypress trees grown around the world. In Virginia, where I live, the prevalent species is juniperus virginiana, also known as eastern redcedar. It grows like a weed, because it is one. The scrubby little eastern redcedar pops up in pastures and sprouts along fence lines all over the place. The one thing it is not, however, is red cedar.
So, it’s a berry that isn’t a berry, from a cedar that isn’t a cedar—I don’t get it either, frankly. The oldest juniper tree that ever grew in the U.S. was in West Virginia and lived to be more than nine hundred years old. The biggest tree in my immediate vicinity is along my shared driveway, on the edge of a hayfield. It’s got to be fifty feet tall, and it is covered in a carpet of blue tinted tight little cones, most of which are too high to reach even if you stand in the bed of a pickup. (Trust me, I tried my best to reach them.)
But here’s the thing about juniper, you don’t need a long country drive or a West Virginia mountain to find one. Juniper is everywhere. It’s a hardy and fast-growing ornamental evergreen, and as such it gets planted frequently.
The jar of berries I have in my cabinet came from a hedge of juniper that bordered a parking lot that I used to walk by when I lived in New York’s Hudson Valley. I’d pass it every day while I walked my dog, and when the berries were mature, I’d pick a handful and put them in the pocket of my jacket. When I got home I dried them out on a big plate. (If you jar them before they’re completely dry, the berries will mold.)
However, you have to be very careful, since not all juniper berries are edible or even pleasant tasting. If you’re not sure what kind you find, please go with dried berries bought online or in a store.
I still have my foraged jar of berries because a little goes a long way. I only used maybe ten little berries in my choucroute. But I have recently discovered a new way to use them: juniper-spiked cranberry jelly.
I had stumbled on a recipe for it on Food52, but it wasn’t quite oomphy enough for me. So, I began to tweak it.
This jelly is marvelous with meats—especially gamey, or big flavored meat, like duck or goose or venison. (Juniper berry season corresponds, after all, with hunting season.) But really it goes well with anything. I smeared some across a slice of roast pork just last night.
It is not a rigid jelly. It’ll coat the back of a spoon, but it isn’t supposed to be solid. The jelly is tart with a great round undertone from red wine, and a long juniper finish. It’s also an excellent addition to cocktails. I just may need to get a second jar of berries this year.
Cranberry Juniper Jelly
1 cup Red wine
1 cup Sugar
12 oz Bag of cranberries
5-6 Quarter-sized slices of ginger, no need to peel it
2 or 3 Tbsp Juniper berries
12 Black peppercorns
Boil the wine, sugar, juniper, ginger, and peppercorns in a saucepan, stirring while the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries, and bring back to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let cook for ten or fifteen minutes. The cranberries will pop open. Strain the concoction into a bowl, squishing and pressing the berries through a sieve. Pour the liquid into a ball jar and put it in the fridge. It will jell as it cools.