Can it be Octobrrrrrr already? It can, and the next stop is Thanksgiving. But don’t obsess just yet. Enjoy this period of relative calm before the holiday storm. A good way to do that is to settle in with today’s Food section. You’ll learn about a new outreach program in schools to teach kids about producing fresh, local food. You’ll be introduced to DC Brau, the District’s first commercial brewery since Ike was president. And you’ll read regular contributor David Hagedorn’s lovely tribute to his mother .
Then clear your schedule for an hour starting at noon, and join us for the weekly culinary conversation known as the Free Range chat. Bring your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer. Every week, one question we didn’t have time to answer gets salved for this blog. Here’s one from last week:
Here’s a leftover question from last week’s chat:
I know juniper berries are used in gin; are they also used in cooking? I have a juniper tree with lots of berries. Are they edible, or do I need a special type of juniper tree?
First things first: Yes, they’re used in cooking, primarily as flavorings for meat and sauces. So if you’ve got juniper berries, you’ve got a great resource.
As we saw with the recent mushroom poisonings in our area, things aren’t always what they seem. What looks like a chanterelle could end up being a heap of trouble. And so it is with juniper berries.
A common type of juniper that’s native to the region comes loaded with enticing-looking little blue berries, a lot like the ones that are used to flavor food and drink. But this tree is Juniperus virginiana — a.k.a. the Eastern red cedar — and its berries are toxic to many people.
The variety that yields the safer and tastier berries is Juniperus communis. (And even with those, there’s concern about eating them if you’re pregnant or have reduced kidney function.) Your first step should be to get a positive identification of your tree. Use the Internet or library, or take a sprig to a large garden center and see if they can ID it. (Or they might even be selling a J. virginiana or J. communis that you can examine.) Then, if you’ve got the real thing. get ready to cook. Here’a recipe to get you started.
Grilled Trout in Juniper-Fennel Paste
Dried juniper berries (available at area Whole Foods Markets and at Penzeys Spices in Falls Church and Rockville) often are used to temper the flavor of wild game and are quite strong when paired with the mild trout.
There is some evidence that a substance in juniper berries may pose a risk to pregnant women and those with compromised kidneys; check with your doctor.
Serve with fennel mashed potatoes.
1 tablespoon juniper berries (see headnote)
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
1 whole trout, cleaned and gutted (about 1/3 pound total)
2 stalks fennel, with fronds attached
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium (350 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 6 or 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Combine the juniper berries, fennel seeds and peppercorns to taste in a coffee grinder or spice grinder; pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground. Transfer one-third of the mixture to a small bowl, then add the salt and the oil, stirring to form a slightly runny paste; reserve the remaining spice mixture for another use.
Use a sharp knife to open the trout like a book; lay it flat on a cutting board, skin side up. Brush generously with olive oil and flip over. Brush the paste on the inside of the trout, then cut a couple of the fennel stalks, with fronds, so that they fit inside the fish. Fold over one half of the fish to close. Place it on the hot grill, open side away from you. Close the grill lid and cook for about 8 minutes, until the flesh is opaque. Carefully slide a large spatula or fish turner underneath the fish to transfer it to a plate.
Discard the fennel stalks inside the fish; serve immediately.