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Foraged vegetables are always more fun to cook. So our resident forager, Tama Matsuoka Wong, is introducing us to the seasonal wild plants we should be looking for, and the recipes that will make our kitchens feel a little more wild.
Today: Evergreens get all the attention in winter, but spring is their time to shine -- and to be eaten. Here's how to turn your backyard spruce into salads, syrups, and a bright, lemony pilaf.
I have so many Norway spruce trees in my backyard I dont know what to do. And I know I'm not alone: This evergreen, with its characteristic saggy branches, must be one of the most commonly planted landscape trees across the country. In our case, the previous property owners tried to start a Christmas tree farm, but it doesn’t seem to have been successful, since they left behind a bunch of neglected and overgrown spruces.
When we first returned to the United States from Hong Kong, my husband was captivated by the idea of cutting down our very own holiday tree from the bunch. He sawed down a 20-footer, but found out that he couldn’t drag it in the door, so he just trimmed off the top; that year, we hung ornaments on an eccentric, surreal sculpture of a tree. It became an interesting conversation piece, but my daughters gave it the thumbs down.
Luckily, I have figured out exactly what to do with these trees. Every year around this time, when they are forming new needles, I anxiously anticipate the short season when young evergreen tips are lime green, soft, and citrusy.
I had never really noticed this before, but in late spring, evergreen spruces and firs begin to change: Their needles grow brown tips, then shed their papery casings and transform into lime green shoots that look like little paintbrushes. As each day passes these tips grow larger, fanning out and eventually forming dark green hard needles. This is how evergreen trees grow, and this short window -- the few weeks before the needles turn hard -- is the time to pick them.
Spruce tips are pine-y, citrusy, and flavorful, and Scandinavian chefs like Rene Redzepi and Mads Refslund have embraced the young shoots as a staple of new Nordic cuisine. They toss them in savory dishes like salads, pickle them whole, or use them to infuse syrups and cocktails. But these dishes are all possible in a home kitchen, with tips sourced from your backyard.
Last week Mads, along with the staff from his New York restaurant, Acme, came over to forage and cook. They tossed spruce tips from our yard into a rice pilaf with cattail shoots and wild herbs. For those of you who don't have cattail shoots lying around, Mads suggested a simpler version that you can make at home, which combines rice with toasted pine nuts and wild spruce tips, plus tons of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
2 cups rice
2 cups water
1 cup spruce tips, pulled apart
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (or chopped pistachios)
1 whole lemon
Note: When foraging, always choose high-quality landscapes (not next to the highway or on post-industrial or sprayed sites), and make sure to obtain permission if it is not your own yard. If possible, go out with an experienced forager. We assume no responsibility for any adverse effects from misidentification or incorrect use of featured wild plants. For more information and identification advice please consult us at meadowsandmore.com.
Photos by Yossy Arefi