Spruce Bringsteen

My culinary spring fling of 2011 was with spruce. Last year I determined that this year would be the one in which I tackled edible conifers, and my initial nibblings have determined that spruce is by far the most interesting to me. They have a distinctly limey quality that piqued my desire to find persuasive local replacements for citrus (which is part of what fuels my continuing vinegar obsession). So I picked a ton of tender tips from a spot I pass frequently and set about converting them into various useful forms.

I didn’t do a lot of research; I sort of wanted to figure them out for myself. The Noma cookbook makes much use of spruce, and Linda wrote an excellent series on conifers a while ago, so I had those ideas rattling around while I got to work. To start, I put an aluminum cookie sheet over the water bath while it cooked duck and rhubarb and used it as a dehydrator. Once the little needles had dried from a near-fluorescent green to a dusty olive, I ground them into a powder in the suribachi and sifted it through a fine strainer.

It’s a nice finishing powder for foods that like a piney, resinous note, and in conjunction with juniper berries it makes for an excellent addition to the local seasoning department.

I used some finely minced fresh tips as a garnish on some soup made with nothing but asparagus and whey with salt and a drop of maple-sumac vinegar, and the result was a pretty splendidly simple rendering of spring.

Two batches of fresh needles got two different treatments to send them on their way towards becoming vinegar. The first batch soaked in vodka for about a week, and then I strained out the solids and diluted the liquid with three parts water to bring the alcohol down to 10%. Then I added a splash of cider vinegar with a slimy dollop of mother for good measure. The other batch of spruce tips simmered in cider until the juice had a noticeably sprucey flavor, and then I strained it and added a bit of mother to that jar as well. They’re both sitting on the counter alongside the other 8 jars of different flavors that I have fermenting right now.

I’ve also been using spruce as a cure; sous-vide duck legs worked nicely, and I want to use the dried spice on pork, but so far the winner has been the spruce-cured gravlax.

I rubbed a lovely fresh fillet of wild Alaskan salmon with salt, maple, and spruce tips, and let it cure for two days in the fridge.

Once firm all the way through, I rinsed it off and served it on homemade sourdough toast with homemade brie and chervil along with a fresh-picked salad for lunch. The rest of the salmon went in the cold smoker for two hours with cherry chips and now it’s just a freakishly good version of the stuff that costs a small fortune at the store (and which is almost all made from Atlantic salmon).

I left some more spruce out on a sheet to dry while I was away, and it’ll probably end up ground for spice, though I thought to add some to a fermented pickle to see what would happen. It’s too early for cucumbers, but maybe chard stems or baby beets would be interesting. In any case, picking and processing spruce will become an annual ritual; I have high hopes for the vinegars especially. The world gets a little bit bigger every time I find a unique new flavor like this. That it’s free and plentiful is just gravy.

Hmmmm… spruce gravy.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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