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What's A Juniper Berry And How Do I Cook With It?

Chef Raghavan Iyer at work in Om, an Indian restaurant in Minneapolis, in 2009. (AP)

This is an installment of NPR's Cook Your Cupboard, an ongoing food series about working with what you have on hand. Have a food that has you stumped? Share a photo and we'll ask chefs about our favorites. The current submission category: Booze!

Bombay native and cookbook author Raghavan Iyer explains how to improvise Indian cuisine with juniper berries, fish sauce and mixed berry jam — three ingredients submitted by Victoria Dougherty's second-period nutrition class in Hudson, N.Y.

Juniper Berries?

After teaching cooking classes for 20 years, Dougherty says she has ended up with some pretty random ingredients in her classroom cupboard — like juniper berries. They're a distinct form of conifer cones produced by the juniper bush, often used as a spice in European cuisine.

Though not a traditional Indian ingredient, Iyer argues that "a good Indian chef should be able to extract at least eight different flavors" from any given spice. Iyer recommends seasoning wild game or pork with the berries. Here are some of his tips:

  • Crush the berry or toast it; crush it if you want a stronger flavor.
  • Rub it into the meat with some ginger or garlic.
  • Sear the meat.
  • Deglaze the hot pan (add some liquid to loosen up the meat flavors at the bottom of the pan).
  • Add some eggplant or a tart apple, such as a Braeburn or a Granny Smith.
  • And add a bit of vinegar to bring out the citrus element of the berries.

Fish Sauce?

A staple of Southeast Asian cuisine, fish sauce, which is extracted from the fermentation of fish with sea salt, was not a particularly popular ingredient with the students in Dougherty's class because of its unpleasant smell. Nonetheless, fish sauce can add a lot of flavor to seafood dishes, Iyer says.

He offers an easy scallop recipe:

  • Sear scallops in a little bit of canola oil that's been dusted with a little bit of turmeric.
  • Take some fresh spinach and peanuts and sear them in the pan with the scallops, adding a bit of fish sauce at the end.
  • Let it simmer, and you're done.

Leftover Jam?

Lastly, Iyer offers some creative ideas for all those half-eaten jars of jam.

  • Combine the jam with a little bit of cayenne (ground red pepper) or Serrano chilies, and mince it.
  • Add it to the jam to make chutney
  • You can always add a spice or two like a cumin coriander combination to make it extra flavorful.
  • Combine the chutney with a melted block of French soft cheese, like brie, in order to make a spread worthy of an appetizer table.
  • Pair the spread with some crostini, the Italian version of thinly sliced pieces of toasted bread, or fold it into a puff pastry and bake it.

If you have culinary conundrums, join the Cook Your Cupboard project! Go to npr.org/cupboard and show us a photo. You'll get guidance from fellow home cooks, and you might even be chosen to come on the air with a chef.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's time to Cook Your Cupboard once again. You know the drill - you submit photos online of odd ingredients in your cupboard that have you stumped, then we choose from the entries; and one of you gets to come on the air for expert advice from a chef.

Today, we're joined by Raghavan Iyer. He is a chef, and a teacher, of Indian cooking. His new book is "Indian Cooking Unfolded." He's on the line from his home in Minneapolis. Good morning.

RAGHAVAN IYER: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: And our listener for this round is Victoria Dougherty of Hudson, N.Y. She is a high school teacher. And I understand that the things you sent in were from your classroom cupboard. Why do you have a classroom cupboard?

VICTORIA DOUGHERTY: Well, I have a classroom cupboard because I'm a family and consumer science teacher at Hudson High School in Hudson, N.Y. And I was doing a project with my students about how to reduce food waste, and use what's in your cupboards. I opened up all the cupboards - right, Jasmine?

JASMINE BASHER: Yes.

DOUGHERTY: And they came up with the idea of picking out a few odd bits, and we took a picture of it and sent it in.

WERTHEIMER: You have one of your students with you. And what is your student's name?

JASMINE: Jasmine Basher(ph).

WERTHEIMER: So Jasmine, you were one of the students who helped pick out the ingredients. You want to just tell us what you picked?

JASMINE: OK, so we picked out juniper berries, fish stock and homemade jam that we made in the classroom last semester.

WERTHEIMER: Now, those are not precisely Indian cooking staples. I'm going to assume that you're up to the task here.

IYER: Yes, yes. And, in fact, the beauty of spices is if you give it to a good Indian cook, we should be able to extract about eight flavors from a given spice. You can actually crush the berry, or if you want to give it much more of a stronger flavor, you can toast the berry and then crush it, and then you could rub it right into the meat with ginger or garlic, perhaps.

WERTHEIMER: That sounds absolutely fabulous. Let's move on to one of the most interesting ingredients, I think, and that is fish sauce.

JASMINE: The smell is just horrible.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Well, if you don't use very much, you don't get the smell. Is that right, Raghavan?

IYER: Yeah, that is. And a little bit goes a long way. And cut it down with lime or lemon juice, and I bet you your perception will change dramatically. It goes well with even seafood, like scallops. Sear the scallops a little bit in canola oil that's been dusted with a little bit of turmeric. Take some fresh spinach and peanuts. Add a little bit of fish sauce to it towards the end. It's not Indian, but you're creating that facsimile, which makes it very much Indian.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we are left with jam. Victoria, this is mixed berry jam. Is this a surplus situation?

DOUGHERTY: Well, yes. I mean, we use it all during the year, on all sorts of things. And, of course, they always have the standby of PB and J. But I did have some sitting on the shelf, and I thought, hmm, you know, before the school year ends, I'd like to know maybe some creative ideas that - how we could use it.

WERTHEIMER: So, Raghavan, what do you think, beyond PB and J?

IYER: Well, to me, when I saw homemade jam, I thought, wow. Think about chutneys, you know. Take the jam and take a little bit of cayenne, ground red pepper, or even if you take some fresh Serrano chilies and mince it, add it to the jam. And then, if you take a wedge or a block of brie, for instance, and spoon some of that spiced jam now, throw it into the microwave for a minute or two.

WERTHEIMER: You put the jam on the cheese, and then put the whole thing in the microwave for a brief time.

IYER: Yup. Until the brie starts to melt and then the jam will get right into the cheese itself. And it's really...

WERTHEIMER: And you would do that with a sort of chutney-fied version of the jam.

IYER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: So, Victoria, do you think that you've got some ideas for you and your students for next year?

DOUGHERTY: Absolutely. I will absolutely try the chutney, for sure. I think they'll really enjoy that.

WERTHEIMER: And what about you? Jasmine, did you hear anything that you thought you might try?

JASMINE: I really like what he said, like how we can use the juniper berries by, like, toasting them and, like, crushing them up and seasoning a meat with them. That sounds very nice, and I would love to try that.

WERTHEIMER: Well, that did sound awfully good, I must say. Raghavan, if I come out to Minneapolis, can you teach me how to make a lamb biryani?

IYER: Oh, my gosh, in a heartbeat.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Good plan. OK. That is Raghavan Iyer, whose new book is called "Indian Cooking Unfolded." Thank you very much.

IYER: Thanks so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: And this round's listener was Victoria Dougherty, a high school teacher from Hudson, New York, and her student, Jasmine Basher. Thanks to both of you.

JASMINE: Thank you.

DOUGHERTY: Oh, thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: Remember, you could always send us your oddball kitchen items. And we've just launched the Booze Round. We want to see the strange mystery bottles that are hanging out in your liquor cabinet, so head on over to npr.org/cupboard, shoot a picture and submit it. You'll get ideas in time for some delicious summer cocktails, and you may get to come on the radio and talk to an expert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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