The buzz and hustle of the holiday season sometimes make me feel as if I’m standing in the middle of a rushing river. The constant noise and music, the tide of guests, the gifts to wrap, meals to cook, the parties to attend can all feel like a crushing deluge. It’s only when I close my eyes that the accelerated motion around me pauses. Underneath the crush lies the soft lining of the holidays, the touch of North winds upon my cheek, owls chatting in the night, the glow of firelight in the eyes of my loved ones, and always, there is an aromatic undercurrent of pine.
Not only is pine is the scent of the season that locks warm memories in my head, it is also an edible treat. You might expect pine to taste of the cool damp woods. But it also sings with bright notes of citrus like grapefruit, tangerine and lemon, and can add an unexpected spark of cheer to your holiday meals.
Foraged pine tips
Pine are usually fairly easy to identify, as their needles emerge from the branch in bundles of two, three or five, rather than singly like spruce or fir (both of which can also be eaten). Conifers are almost all edible. However, make certain you’ve correctly identified your tree before eating it. A novice could confuse pine with yew, which is poisonous when eaten. Consult a local guidebook or a foraging friend, or use a search engine to find which species of pine grow in your area.
Once you are certain that you’ve found an edible pine, your next task is to taste it. There can be tremendous variation in flavor from tree to tree, so find one that tap dances across your taste buds. Spring is the ideal time to collect pine tips. At that time, they are so tender they may be munched raw. Don’t be discouraged from eating pine at other times of year, however. Mature pine needles, even though they are tough, still offer many possibilities in your kitchen.
Start with a simple tisane
When you are ready to harvest, simply snip buds away from a branch with a pair of scissors. Avoid over-harvesting or taking needles from the tips of branches, especially at the top of the tree, as it will be more susceptible to disease.
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As charming as it might seem, don’t be tempted to eat your Christmas tree, unless you are absolutely certain it has not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Also, as a precaution, pine is not for pregnant women.
If you are new to consuming pine, I suggest making pine needle tisane. Simply brew a handful of pine needles in a cup of hot water, as you would a tea.
Another fantastically simple way to incorporate the flavor of pine into your cooking is to make either pine sugar or pine salt. All you have to do is buzz up a few tablespoons of either salt or sugar with a bunch of pine needles in your spice grinder, then sift out any large bits of remaining needles. Roasts and steaks are made exceptionally aromatic when rubbed with pine salt, and root vegetables have a special affinity for it. Pine sugar can be used as a garnish or ingredient in your favorite baking recipes. I’m particularly fond of using pine sugar in shortbread, and also using it to rim all of my holiday cocktails.
Whether enjoyed as a simply brewed cup of hot tisane, sprinkled into meals as a compound salt or sugar, or made into an intriguing gelée condiment, pine’s surprising citrus tones can add a kick to your kitchen this holiday season.
Once you’ve tried your hand at brewing pine tisane, and have played with adding pine salt and pine sugar to your recipes, you are ready to try something a little more advanced, like this pine gelée.
pine needles (enough to fill about half a Mason jar)
½ cup white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon powdered gelatin
1. Use scissors to snip pine needles into an 8-ounce Mason jar until it is approximately ½ to ¾ full.
2. In a small pan on the stove, heat ½ cup of white wine vinegar just until it is warm, but not simmering. Pour the warm vinegar over the pine needles in the Mason jar. Cover the jar with a plastic lid, and let the pine needles steep in the vinegar at least until it has reached room temperature, but ideally for a few days. Next, strain out the needles so that you are left with clear pine-infused vinegar.
3. Pour the pine vinegar into a small pan. Sprinkle in 1½ teaspoon of sugar and 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin. Let the gelatin sit atop the cold vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes. Gently turn up the heat on your stove, and let the vinegar get warm enough to dissolve the sugar and gelatin. You should be able to see this happen. As soon as the vinegar has become clear, pour it back into the Mason jar. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
4. As the pine vinegar gelée starts to set, rake a chopstick though it so that it resembles broken glass. Serve a spoonful of this unusual tangy condiment with your favorite meat, fish, or roasted vegetables.
Foraged pine cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty