"Ever eat a pine tree?"
That's the quote that immediately comes to mind whenever I think of Euell Gibbons, naturalist and father figure of the modern foraging movement. I was just a kid when Gibbons was all over television hawking Grape Nuts cereal. "Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible." became one of those popular cultural catch-phrases that kids and grown-ups repeated when passing a pine tree, decorating the Chistmas tree or simply having cereal for breakfast (and a heckuva lot of us had Grape Nuts in the kitchen cupboard, though truth be told most of us kids much preferred Captain Crunch, Cheerios or Frosted Flakes; the Grape Nuts were really for Mom).
But Gibbons was spot on in heralding the pine tree as a good source of nutrition and sustenance, as he was with just about everything he wrote about in his popular series of foraging and back to nature books. As a kid I knew that pine trees carried nuts/seeds in the cones but could never find any with seeds big enough to make the labor of picking the cones apart worthwhile.
I also knew from my youthful readings of early American history and adventure stories that the needles (or more accurately, the leaves) helped early Americans stave off scurvy, which I only knew as the "sailor's disease", and its relevance to mountain men and pioneers was lost on me at that time (once people reached land and got off the boat, scurvy - whatever that was - was a non-issue, or so I incorrectly assumed). And of course we knew that pine pitch, that impossible-to-remove super-sticky gunk leaking from the trees, was used by the Indians to make their birch bark canoes. Beyond that all I knew as a kid was that Christmas treees were pine trees, they were great to play under and build forts around in the winter snow, and they smelled good.
But Euell Gibbons helped me to see that pine trees offered so much more, in the form of culinary adventure. I looked for and thought about other edible aspects of pine trees. What did Gibbons mean when he said, "Many parts are edible?" Could you just pluck a twig and start chewing? (Yes, you could, I discovered, but who in the world would want to. It was gawd-awful in every way.)
I did learn about using the leaves to make tea, and that some pine trees did have seeds large enough to harvest, even if they weren't readily available in Wisconsin. I also learned that pine pitch was used as a kind of chewing gum by American Indians, though that too proved to be a once-is-enough experiment for me.
It wasn't until years later, as my culinary skills evolved professionally and I began to marry them to my foraging, hunting and fishing pursuits, that I revisited Euell Gibbons old TV commercial catch-phrase. The first culinary experiments I did with pine were simple infusions. I stuck fresh pine sprigs in bottles of extra virgin olive oil and grapeseed oil, and in vodka, and allowed them to infuse over several days or several weeks. The olive and grapeseed oils developed piney, citrusy notes (more promounced in the grapeseed oil) that were great in salad dressings, and we used the vodka to make some really wonderful "Christmas martinis" (complete with spruce tip garnish) at our coffee house restaurant, Stumpjack. The piney vodka could be a key ingredient in any number of cocktail recipes. That's really where it's at with pine, leaching the the aromatic, oily essence for use as a flavoring agent. Other than pine nuts and its use as an herb or spice, there's really not much of the tree itself that you'd want to consume wholly on its own.
We also make a simple syrup using pine needles that we use in coffee drinks, tea, and some other cocktail concoctions. A favorite winter morning coffee drink is a riff on Irish Coffee where I add a splash of pine infused simple syrup to the coffee and whiskey, topped with a lightly pine infused whipped cream using a whipped cream charger. You've got to taste and keep track of how much and how long you infuse things with pine however. A little goes a long way here, and it's not hard to go overboard with pine flavor and aroma. Too much and you might find yourself drinking something more like a mug of furnisher polish. You really want something that has a subtle citrusy flavor and just a whisper of pine aroma. Enough to make you feel warm and cozy, but not enough to curl your hair.
You can also use pine needles much as you would an herb like rosemary (they share similar attributes and flavor profiles) or sage. Pluck them from the branches and sprigs and use them fresh, or dry them and store as you would any other dried herb or spice. Unless I'm using them in a bouquet garni where the whole sprig is the way to go, or in an herb or spice satchel that is removed from a simmering soup before serving, I will mince the leaves on a cutting board. For example, the other day I made a loaf of Irish Soda Bread into which I incorporated a couple tablespoons of minced pine needles, along with pine infused buttermilk, to give the whole thing an aromatic, piney essence.
This post is getting a bit lengthy, so I think I'm going to make this a two-parter with a couple more recipes, next week perhaps.
Pine simple syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup cane sugar
Half-dozen pine sprigs
1. Gently heat water and sugar, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved.
2. Add pine sprigs and bring to a boil. Let boil for a minute, turn off heat and allow to cool.
3. Remove sprigs, strain and bottle, refrigerate.
Pine flavored whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Handful of pine sprigs
1. Give the pine sprigs a few wacks with a meat hammer or press them with the side of your chef's knife. Just rough them up a bit to facilitate releasing their oils.
2. Place the sprigs in a mason jar and add the heavy cream. Screw a lid on and set in the fridge for a few days. Taste the cream after two or three days to see if it's where you want it. If not, add a couple more sprigs. The pineyness of it depends how much and what kind of pine you're using and even the time of year (pines seem more or less aromatic depending on the season).
3. Once it's to your liking remove the sprigs and strain the cream. Add the powdered sugar and mix very well.
4. Add cream to whipped cream charger, shake and serve.
Piney Irish soda bread:
This is a basic soda bread recipe.
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 tbl sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1½ tsp salt
½ stick butter, cut into ½" pieces
2 heaping tbl minced fresh pine needles
1½+ cups cold pine infused buttermilk plus a bit extra for brushing
1. To infuse the buttermilk, follow the same procedure as with the piney whipped cream recipe, except of course use buttermilk instead of cream and ignore the whipped cream charger. This means you'll have to plan ahead a few days before making the soda bread in order to allow enough time for the buttermilk to become properly pine flavored.
2. Line a large cast iron skillet with a piece of parchment paper (cut paper in a circle a bit larger than the skillet).
3. Mince fresh pine needles. Depending on the type of pine you're using (I prefer a fraser fir or a balsam) the leaves can be pretty oily and will easily stick to your knife, so it'll take a little time.
4. Heat oven to 375°
5. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, butter in a big bowl. Add minced pine needles and mix again. I do this in two steps because it's just a little easier getting the pine needles distributed into the flour after the butter is incorporated.
6. Whisk the egg and buttermilk together then work into the four mixture.
7. Flour your counter and turn the dough out onto the counter. It will be sticky. Knead it just enough to form it into a ball, flouring your hands as you go.
8. Place the dough ball onto the parchment-lined skillet. Cut a large X into the surface of the dough. Brush surface with buttermilk.
9. Bake for about an hour, giving it a brush of buttermilk once or twice during the bake. Check doneness with a toothpick or wood skewer.
* You could, if you want, add a cup of golden raisins or currants to the batter as well.
This bread has an almost biscotti- or scone-like quality to it. It's quite nice with coffee and perhaps a bit of fig jam.