I discovered that there were Juniper bushes growing all around the cabin sometime in March 2012. The ground was still covered with snow, and we were at the cabin to do ice fishing. J had tried to coax me along on these treks before – but I was a little skeptical about how much I’d enjoy sitting out on top of the ice in the middle of the lake, trying to catch a few fish in freezing cold weather.
But because the weekend was supposed to be bright and sunny, and because J & H always come back grinning like kids every time they’ve been out ice fishing, I decided to go along. We strapped on old Swedish army skis, and headed off into the bright morning sunshine, -10°C temperatures notwithstanding. It was glorious! It’s no wonder the flag of Finland is a white cross on a blue background. In a country with 7 months of winter, on the days when the sun comes out and the ground is covered with snow, the whole of Finland seems to be a sparkling white landscape against a perfect blue sky.
We skied out past a few islands, drilled hole after hole across the lake, and tried our best at fishing until my toes began to freeze and we all got hungry. The only fish biting that day were itty bitty perch/ahven – but we did keep them – J made an Ahven Kukko, which is basically tiny fish (traditionally Vendance), skins removed, bones intact, baked with bacon in a buttered rye crust at a low temperature in the oven all night long – until the fish bones are soft and the crust a combination of crisp and chewy. It’s a little odd at first, but the taste grows on you, and J’s dad loved it. If you want a little entertainment about Kalakukko, the original version, check out this hilarious video made for the Shanghai World’s Fair Finland Pavilion here.
The weather was still beautiful when we got back, so after lunch I went for a short walk in the woods and quickly became distracted by dusty purple berries on some of the trees: Juniper! I have learned since that the best time to harvest Juniper Berries in Finland is in the early Fall – it may be different where you are – so I had to wait 6 months to get my hands on Juniper to freeze, but it was well worth the wait. The berries on the trees are up to 2 years old, and are a dusty purple and slightly plump when they are ready to be picked. It’s slow work picking them by hand – and if any of you have figured out a quick way to harvest them, I’d love to hear it! The size of the berry depends on climate and the type of Juniper tree, but as far as I’ve experienced, there is little difference in taste or fragrance, and the tiny Juniper berries I’ve found in Finland are lovely. You can dry them, but the flavor declines over time when dried, so I freeze them instead in a small glass jar.
Now that I have a cup or so in my freezer, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with them. Hunger and Thirst had a Wild Things had a Juniper Roundup in October with several recipes that I am planning to try, but I for some reason wanted soup and had cabbage in the fridge that was ready to be made into something delectable.
This was a recipe born of tasting the contents of the pot, adding a bit of this and a bit of that until I arrived at a recipe that is deep and satisfying in its flavor, has a subtle scent of Juniper, and is simple to throw together. If you don’t have demi glace (available at most grocery stores) you can use a good beef broth as the base to replace half of the water. You’ll get the best flavor with the demi glace, however.
Also, because Juniper goes so well with game – if you have that, definitely use ground or shredded game instead of the beef – you’ll knock your flavor up a notch. If any of you try game, please let me know how it was! I’m going to look for moose at the local Hakaniemi Market Hall and throw that in the pot next time.
TIP: Another trick I learned from J’s dad: in the summer when you have parsley (works for dill, chives, cilantro and basil too), wash and chop the parsley and store it in the freezer in labeled plastic freezer containers. It works just like the fresh herbs in cooked or baked products, and is way more convenient to use in the winter than the fresh herbs are.
Cabbage Soup with Juniper & Beef
In a medium-sized, heavy bottom pot over medium heat , pour in 2 tablespoons of oil and add:
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 green pepper / paprika, diced
Saute until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add:
1/2 Savoy cabbage, roughly chopped
6 cups / 1.5 l water
1 1/4 tablespoon Juniper berries, crushed and chopped
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup demi glace
Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to medium low, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile cook your beef. Into a frying pan over medium heat, pour 2 tablespoons of oil and add:
3/4 lb / 300 g ground beef or game
1/2 onion, diced
1 teaspoon Italian Seasoning
salt and pepper to taste.
Fry the the beef until it is cooked through, using your spoon or spatula to break it into small chunks as it cooks. Taste the beef mixture to make sure it is cooked to your satisfaction. You want to make sure the meat is well-seasoned so that the overall flavor of the soup is in balance. Add the beef mixture to the soup pot along with
1/4 cup chopped, fresh or frozen parsley
Cook for an additional 5 minutes. Taste the soup broth and add salt or pepper if needed. Garnish with fresh parsley leaves and serve with fresh bread and slices of cheese.