Choucroute: cooking with juniper berries

I have friends in high places. I mean, literally high places– up in the mountains, where juniper trees grow everywhere. Soft, succulent, aromatic juniper berries. Last week, I received a mystery box in the mail. Mystery, except for that familiar fresh woodsy smell that met me as I picked it up. And then I started screaming. If you haven’t seen a plant person get excited over a box of plants on their front doorstep, then picture an eleven-year old girl and that Justin Bieber guy, and you get the general idea.

Juniper berries make fantastic medicine. They’re fantastic for low-grade urinary tract infections, or even those ones that never seem to go away. They’re also great for digestion– anything that’s lovely and aromatic usually is– so they’re great to cook with. I made a tincture with most of the berries, and then remembered a recipe tucked into a corner of “The Man Who Ate Everything”.

It was all Jeffrey Steingarten’s fault. I blame the entire glory of this dish on him. When I first got his books, I read both cover to cover in a matter of days, and then gave them to Jam, who also read them completely. Over the next week or so, we started referring to Mr. Steingarten first, as “Jeffrey” and then, as “His Eminence”. As in “Oh man, this is the best {X} I’ve ever made, I think we should invite His Eminence over for dinner and make this.” or as in “Oh man, this restaurant is great. I wonder if His Eminence has ever been here”. Or even “I wish His Eminence had more books out, because I miss him.” Yes, I said that. If you’re reading, Mister Steingarten, please take note.

In my favourite of his articles, he drags his wife around Alsace, eating choucroute garnie at every stop. I dog-eared the page with the recipe, thought about it for weeks on end, talked about how I wanted to make choucroute to anyone who would listen, and then slowly forgot about it as newer, cooler recipes came along.

Until I was standing there in my little office with a handful of fresh juniper berries. Then I remembered, and ran over to my bookshelf to find the book with the dog-eared page. Except it wasn’t there. I remembered lending it to my mum a few months ago. After cursing her (sorry mum) and calling her frantically for a word-by-word readout of the entire article and recipe (she didn’t answer… obviously not understanding that she is supposed to be at my beck and call every moment of the day (sorry mum)), I plunged into a state of despair.

Until Jam cleverly pointed out that I’ve made some good recipes in the past. “Screw His Eminence,” he said (sorry, Your Eminence). “Make your own!”

And so I did. And you know what… I don’t care how good Mister Steingarten’s recipe is. This is quite possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

Choucroute Garnie a la Rebecca

Serves 4, with leftovers

For the spice mix:

15 dried juniper berries

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp coriander

For the bouquet:

1/2 bunch parsley

15 fresh juniper berries (dried will work)

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp black papper

1/2 tsp coriander

2 lb beef roast (at room temperature)

1 large onion (sliced)

1 large sweet potato (cubed)

2 stalks celery (chopped)

1 tsp salt

6 cloves garlic

1 packet of bacon (chopped into 1-inch pieces)

1 packet of sausages (I used andouille)

4 cups sauerkraut

2 cups white wine

2 cups chicken stock

A few hours before you want to cook, grind up the spice mix with a pestle and mortar, and pat into the surface of the roast. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375.

In a heavy-bottomed casserole dish (one large enough to hold all these ingredients), fry up the bacon until slightly crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Then, turn the heat up high, and sear the piece of meat in the bacon fat (if there’s not enough fat then you can add some extra lard or olive oil) until it’s crispy and browned on all sides. Set aside.

In the same fat, turn down the heat slightly, and cook the onions, sweet potato and celery, until transparent. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute or so, then add the sauerkraut, wine and chicken stock. Bring to the boil, and cook for five minutes or so, then add the meat and the bouquet. I find that the easiest way to make a bouquet is to use one of those disposable tea bags, however you can also tie the herbs up in a piece of muslin. If you have neither, I’d even consider using a [clean] old sock, but don’t tell that to my dinner guests.

Cover the casserole dish, and put in the oven. Cook for 1 1/2- 2 hours, until the meat is tender. About ten minutes before it’s ready, heat up a frying pan, and pan fry the sausages in lard or olive oil. I usually pour enough white wine into the pan so that it comes about half way up the height of the sausages, and then let it cook off, then toss them in the remaining liquid.

To serve, ladle the sauerkraut mixture onto a serving dish, then place the roast on top, and the pieces of sausages all around the edges, sprinkle with the bacon. The remaining liquid in the pot can be poured into a jug and used as the most delicious gravy in human history.

Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and lots of butter.

For more information on Juniper, plus some great writing about wildcrafting, check out my friend Butter’s blog post on juniper-dove kebabs!

  • Christy

    Wow – I don’t know what “his emminance’s” recipe was but I believe yours sounds amazingly out of this world! You were certainly inspired! A wonderful addition to the Hearth and Soul Hop! Thanks!

    • fairybekk

      Thanks Christy!!!

  • Butterpoweredbike

    Wow, your new site look great, my Fairy friend! Did you draw that feather yourself?

    Q – Did you tincture the berries whole, or did you crush them first?

    This looks like a seriously decadent meat-fest, just the kind of thing that I love to cook for a house full of my favorite people. Thanks for sharing your recipe and tips with the Hearth and Soul hop.

    • fairybekk

      Yes, I drew the feather… I have a thing for feathers :).

      Tinctured whole, 1:1 in brandy. I’d use a higher proof if I had it, but I’m all out, and brandy just makes things taste so good.

  • girlichef

    My mouth is watering…the pictures are amazing! I get the same way when I get something spectacular (to me) in the mail. This is a very glorious and rich meal. Shall I just call you Her Imminence? ;) Thanks for sharing this with the hearth and soul hop!

    • fairybekk

      Well I wouldn’t object to such a nickname, no…. :P