The gin revival over the last few years has been impossible to ignore even if anyone wanted to. Not that I do. How different artisan or old-favourite gins balance their botanicals into particular flavour combinations means every G&T or martini hits the spot in its own unique way.
There are certain ingredients that most gins will include to varying degrees – such as angelica, coriander seeds, anise, fennel, maybe cardamon or bay – but always, always, there is juniper in there. That berry which gets dried into a spice is the essential key note to all gins. Its ability to balance other flavours whilst contributing its own robust and distinctive earthiness makes juniper a most useful ingredient in its own right even beyond gin. And autumn is the absolutely perfect time to embrace juniper in your kitchen as well as your drinks cabinet.
Our cooking ancestors would have used October’s fresh juniper berries. In one of nature’s wonderful happenstances they come into season just as they are needed to cut through the intensity and richness of so many of autumn’s savoury dishes. The modern cook has to go for dried berries instead but they do the job well. Foraging for fresh juniper berries in just not realistic these days unless you live up in the Scottish Highlands. (Elsewhere in the UK the juniper’s conifer trees have dwindled horribly in the last 50 or so years.)
Game meats and pork are really where juniper excels. Many recipes for their casseroles, roastings or marinades say to use juniper. As you follow any of those recipes it is worth having a think about how the gins partner flavours. Be inspired by your favourite. Chances are that whatever other ingredients that gin is putting with the juniper will go well with what you are cooking too. I add star anise to a venison & juniper casserole; the underside of my pork belly has fennel seeds rubbed into it as well as crushed juniper; and this quick marinade of juniper with cardamon and bay is terrific for duck breasts.
Juniper, cardamon & bay roasted duck breasts (serves 2)
2 duck breasts with the skin on
15 dried juniper berries
10 cardamon pods
1tbsp olive oil
2tsps red wine vinegar
grated zest of half an orange
1 large bay leaf (or 2 smaller ones)
- Crush the juniper berries and the cardamon pods with a pinch of salt. Mix those crushed spices with the olive oil, vinegar and orange zest in a shallow dish which will fit the duck breasts side-by-side. Give a good grinding of pepper. Scrunch up the bay leaf in your hand to get its oils going and add to the dish. Now sit the duck breasts on top of the marinade but don’t roll them round in it as you want to keep the skin dry. Cover and leave – overnight, for a few hours, or even just half an hour if that is all you have.
When it is time to cook, preheat the oven to 200C and then:
- Choose a frying pan that can go into the oven. Get the pan hot on the stove but don’t put any oil in it. When it is properly hot sit the duck breasts skin-side down in the pan. After 2 minutes or so the fat will start to run. When it does turn them over and give them another two minutes. Then put them in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Cover with a lid or foil when they come out of the oven to let the meat rest for 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, carve on the diagonal, and serve. I’d have them with mash and creamed spinach or red chard.
Gin itself need not be a stranger to the kitchen. We’re all used to cooking with wines, vermouth, sherry, brandy – why not gin? Elizabeth David wrote in her book ‘Omelette and a Glass of Wine’ about how little used gin is in British cooking and yet in France or Belgium they would liberally cook with eau de vie de geniévre. Geniévre being juniper berries.
Elizabeth D went on to recount an Ambrose Heath recipe for kidneys with gin and juniper berries that I think makes a fine autumnal supper. For two people simply flash-fry in butter prepped and seasoned kidneys and remove from the pan whilst still pink inside. Then pour 150ml of gin into the pan with 5 or 6 crushed juniper berries; let the gin bubble for a minute or so on a high heat to reduce and burn off the alcohol; then pour over the kidneys and eat. Very tasty indeed. As is sloe gin slugged over a joint of lamb as it roasts, with the added benefit of letting you make a pun on ‘sloe’ roasting. And surely we all love a good foodie/boozy pun to brighten up the colder evenings.