Since I began working on this blog, I have found two things about foraging which surprise me. First, that you can forage quite happily in the winter even in this snowiest of landscapes for some really worthwhile ingredients, one of which I am writing about today. In fact, the winter has the advantage of being insect-free, and as long as there’s not a blizzard and you are dressed for it, the venture is very invigorating and a great excuse to enjoy the outdoors. Just don’t remove gloves for too long while you take photographs or snip branches, both of which are impossible with furry gloves.
The other surprise is that some of the most overlooked and miniscule pickings add so much flavour and are every bit as valuable as the bulkier crops. Good seasonings and spices are essential in cooking, and if they are local, fresh and free, all the better.
I have always used juniper berries in cooking, usually to flavour fish, game, sauerkraut and choucroute garnie, but no longer will I buy little plastic boxes from the supermarket. I found my own source, and they are so good!
These ones grow on what is usually referred to as the Eastern Red Cedar which is misleading because it is not a cedar, but a juniper, juniperus virginiana to be exact. This same cedar we use to add a scent to our linen trunks and repel moths is not a cedar at all – another surprise for me. There are other varieties of juniper, but I will only try and describe this one as I have direct experience with it. So here are a few facts you’ll need to identify it.
Where it grows: Eastern North America, hardy to zone 3.
Description: A coniferous evergreen which in poor soil may just be a shrub but in the right conditions can grow as high as 40-50 feet with a spread of 8-15 feet. It is pyramid shaped. The leaves change appearance with age. The young ones, on trees up to three years old and the new growth on older trees have sharp spreading needles about 2-4 inches long. Leaves of older trees are green and scale-like arranged in overlapping groups of four. The trees I picked from were of the younger variety. There is a good picture showing the leaves at different stages in this post. The fruit are small currant sized cones resembling berries, dark blue with a white waxy coating which makes them look sky blue.
Uses: The cones are used in cooking and making gin, the leaves are toxic. The bark is used as a moth repellant, and the wood is used in building fence posts. Oil is extracted from leaves, bark and wood.
Benefits and Cautions: The cones (which look like berries) have an antiviral compound called deoxypodophyllotoxin (DPT) which is used against some viruses. People used to add it to tea as a medicinal herb. They should not be taken in large amounts.
At this point I was just interested in using these little cones (berries), and as I am off rich and meaty dishes at this time of year, I decided to make a vegan soup – a pea soup, with some aromatic flavour. I also used some of my prickly ash, or szechwan pepper, but if you don’t have that you can just use more black pepper. And if you don’t have these plants in your area, you can buy both juniper berries or Szechwan pepper at a good spice store.
I soaked, then cooked one pound of split peas. Once cooked I added 1 chopped onion, 1 carrot, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, 10 juniper berries, 1 tsp Szechwan pepper, 1 tsp black pepper and salt to taste. I simmered it until all vegetables were cooked.
You can vary the spiciness according to your taste of course. By using these less common flavours, you will find this familiar soup takes on a whole new character. If you have a favourite dish using juniper berries, I would love to hear about it.