Question: I've come across mention of juniper berries in several recipes, especially in German cookbooks. I know that juniper berries are an ingredient of gin, but I don't know anything else about them. What are they? What do they taste like and where may I purchase them?
Answer: Juniper berries are the dried fruit of the evergreen Juniperus communis. According to "The Complete Book of Herbs & Spices" by Sarah Garland (Viking Press: 1979), this small tree or shrub grows throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia and North America. "Small cones grow in early summer at the base of the leaves, the male and female on different plants. The male cones are yellow, the female bluish-green. The female cones become fleshy berries, taking up to three years to ripen and gradually turning from green to blue-black."
Garland goes on to say that the berries "have an aromatic resinous flavor that goes particularly well in marinades and with wild game such as venison, hare and partridge. They will sharpen and enrich beef and pork, stuffings and pates, sauerkraut and hot potatoes. As the flavor is strong, add them with discretion; crush before use."
The berries are available in the spice section of some supermarkets, as well as at specialty food stores. Women's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery: Volume 6 (Fawcett Publications: 1966) says: "The flavor of freshly dried juniper berries is intense but it dissipates fairly quickly so that dried juniper berries should not be kept too long."
Q: I make a pretty good pizza at home but I have trouble getting a crisp crust. I bake the pizza in a 450-degree oven after all toppings are in place. Would it help to make the crust crisp if I partially prebaked the crust and then do the topping? Or would it be better to set the oven higher for a short period and then turn it down?
A: The key to crisp pizza crusts is a stone-lined oven like those in pizza parlors. When cookbook author and admitted pizza freak Abby Mandel visited The Times test kitchen, she suggested you can closely approximate the commercial ovens by lining your own oven with unglazed quarry tiles or a pizza stone, available in specialty food stores and some housewares departments. For a crisper crust for pizzas other than those with a paper-thin crust, Mandel suggests sprinkling a well-oiled baking pan with cornmeal.
Q: What are the facts regarding the refrigeration of hot food? Some say "Let cool, then refrigerate"; others "Refrigerate immediately." What is the straight skinny?
A: In "Food Fundamentals" (John Wiley & Sons: 1985), author Margaret McWilliams explains: "Because of the tremendous impact of temperature on the survival and growth of microorganisms, careful attention to food temperatures is of great importance in assuring the safety of protein-rich foods.
"Refrigerators should be monitored to be certain that they are maintaining a temperature no higher than 40 degrees F., the range needed to retard reproduction and growth of most microorganisms that might be present. Cold foods should be kept refrigerated, removing them from the refrigerator only for efficient preparation and service. Extended periods standing at room temperature should be avoided.
"Leftovers should be cared for promptly after the meal. Hot foods should be cooled as quickly as possible to the point where they can be placed in the refrigerator without raising the temperature of the refrigerator above 45 degrees F. The refrigerator will be able to return quickly to its desired cool temperature while also completing the rapid chilling of the leftover. By stripping the meat from the bones of turkeys and scooping the dressing from the cavity, this bulky and potentially hazardous type of leftover can be cooled and refrigerated very quickly after roasting and serving.
"After preparation, protein-containing foods that are to be served cold should be chilled until serving time. Meringue and custard pies should be refrigerated when the pan has cooled sufficiently to be held comfortably in the hand. Cakes with cream fillings can be refrigerated as soon as the icing has been added. Potato salad, egg salad, tuna salad and other protein-rich salads should be kept refrigerated at all times except when being served. Their abundance of cut surfaces makes them prime targets for microorganisms."
Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About. . . ., Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.