By Amy Crowell
Photography by Dustin Meyer
Winter is a good time to fill your pantry with wild spices. The smell of juniper-flavored meat slow roasting in the oven is a wonderful treat for holiday guests. Eating it is pretty amazing, too. After whipping up the spice mix for my brisket recipe, my five-year-old son remarked, “It smells like Christmas!” I think ground juniper berries smell like the Hill Country forest after a rain. Our options for wild Texas spices go way beyond juniper, though.
We have a few native substitutes for bay, plenty of wild mint and watercress and several varieties of spicy mustards. Wild edibles such as the native chili pequin or farkleberry can be dried and used to flavor our foods year-round. Here are a few of my favorite wild seasonings:
Juniper berries (Juniperus ashei and Juniperus virginiana): The trees we sometimes call cedars are actually junipers, and they give us more than allergies in the winter. Juniper berries are the well-known flavoring ingredient in gin and also impart an aromatic spiciness to meats and other dishes. They can be found and harvested throughout the year here in Central Texas, though I’ve had the most success collecting large quantities in the winter. Simply pluck the berries from the branches, dry roast them in a 250-degree oven until they shrivel a bit, turn black and become crumbly, then you may store them in an airtight container for months. When you’re ready to use them, grind them in a clean coffee or spice grinder.
Wax myrtles (Myrica cerifera) and Redbays (Persea borbonia): These bushy, small evergreen trees offer fabulous native substitutes for bay leaves and can be used fresh or dried to flavor soups, stews, beans or roasts. Though they are more commonly found east and south of Austin, wax myrtle and redbay often can be found in our native landscapes, too. Simply pluck the leaves or snip a stem or two and allow the leaves to air-dry in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. Once the leaves are dried, they can be stored in an airtight container for several months.
Chili pequins (Capsicum annuum): One of the most popular uses of chili pequins is to spice up vinegar. My grandpa always had a glass jar full of chili-pequin-infused vinegar sitting on his table that he would sprinkle on whatever he was eating—salads, rice, steaks or anything that needed a little kick. Chili pequins can also be dried and stored. When you’re ready to use them, crumble them into chili flakes or grind them into powder to make one of the hottest native spices imaginable.
Redbud pods (Cercis canadensis): The young pods on a redbud tree can be eaten fresh or dried for use as a tart spice. I’ve crumbled the dried pods on top of rice and potatoes—it’s like black pepper, but it adds a unique tangy flavor instead.
Spicebushes (Lindera benzoin): Also known as wild allspice, the spicebush is one of our wild treasures here in Central Texas that’s becoming rare and endangered due to development. We should do everything we can to preserve and protect this amazing tree. Its leaves, bark, small branches and berries can be dried and stored for later use. Once ground, the spicebush is a fabulous allspice substitute. Spicewood, just outside of Austin, was named in honor of this fragrant plant.
When drying wild spices, be sure they’re completely crispy-dry before storing them in airtight containers. Also try to store them whole to retain most of their intense flavors.
The rub in this recipe can be used on a variety of meats, including pork, venison, beef and chicken. Once combined, the spice mix can be stored for several weeks in an airtight container.
For the spice rub:
2 T. dried juniper berries
1 T. black peppercorns
2 T. dried chili pequins
1 T. fennel seeds
3 T. coarse salt
1 T. dried sage
1 T. garlic powder
1 T. sugar
For the brisket:
3 lb. boneless beef brisket
1 T. olive oil
3 c. beef stock
To make the rub, add the juniper berries, peppercorns, chili pequins and fennel seeds to a clean coffee or spice grinder and grind together. Mix with the remaining spice rub ingredients.
Preheat the oven to 300°. Generously rub the brisket on all sides with the spice rub. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy baking dish on medium heat until hot. Add the brisket and lightly brown on both sides. Remove the meat and pour off the drippings. Return the brisket to the pan and add the beef stock. Cover tightly and cook for 3 to 4 hours. To serve, cut against the grain and cover with a brisket glaze, if desired.