“Foraging for fir is possibly one of the hippest endeavors a chef can undertake, short of moving to Brooklyn, curling your mustache, strapping on suspenders, and donning a knit cap.” – a dumb website once said. But what that lame website also failed to explain is that my house smells like a Nordic spa right now and no one is complaining.
I recently had a conversation with Katy McNulty, a co-worker (and former sous-chef at Blue Hill) about seasonality and the rewards that come from waiting. We agreed that chefs want to be the first to have spring greens on their menu because it’s New York. But they also want to be the first to have spring greens because just like everyone else, they’re sick and tired of beets and potatoes and after a winter as long and dreary as ours, geography matters little. (This explains why you saw a sugar snap pea cocktail on March 21st.) “I get it,” Katy said, “but there’s nothing more satisfying than when you take that first drive home from the farmer’s market and your trunk is filled with baby greens and spring onions and tiny radishes and you get to have this moment to yourself where you inhale really deep and then roll down the windows because your whole car smells like dirt. And it’s wonderful. I would rather wait for that moment than burn myself out on produce that will naturally come around here in 2 months time. The rewards are much greater.”
Basically what we’re saying is that if you want to see some of the meanest cut-throat competition in NYC, go to the Union Square farmer’s market in April and watch grown men have a temper tantrum over a bag of pea shoots. And if spring is off to a sluggish start, walk into any kitchen and you will see there is often little hesitation to buy from California.
So when I stumbled onto two 1/2-gallon ziplock bags of spruce tips in my freezer a few days later, I had a thought. Spruce tips, the tender beginning buds of the spruce tree, are a nice reminder of an important seasonal transition and the benefits to come. They are piney little wonders that still smell of fresh clean snow but also remind of us longer warmer days, melting ice and new mossy growth. These foraged tips came from a small New Jersey based produce distributor that specializes in organic produce and dairy sourced from small sustainable farms in Jersey cow country. I came to work with them when I was a buyer because I knew one of the drivers (who later left the company to get hitched and start his own permaculture and biodynamic farming start-up, Fields Without Fences). That was about a year ago and the bright green buds have been hibernating in my freezer ever since. ‘Turns out there’s an awful lot you can do with spruce tips. So this post will be broken down into three parts: Spruce Syrup Cocktail, Ice Cream and Pickles (not pregnant here, I promise.)
PART ONE: COCKTAILS & SYRUP
The first project was to make a spruce simple syrup, which in and of itself has endless uses: cocktails, sodas, sorbet, reductions and sauces. But it’s nearly spring and I’m thirsty for a drink that doesn’t involve apple cider or scotch. A cocktail, it is!
For this new seasonal quaff I chose Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. Dutch style gins tend to be very herbal and juniper heavy, a natural complement to the woodsy and herbal notes of the spruce syrup. Finishing the cocktail was some St. Germain, an elderflower based liqueur and a garnish of lavender bitters from Scrappy’s and Bitterman’s Boston bitters, a bright blend of citrus and chamomile. I promise that once shaken and poured, you will be transplanted to a far away mossy patch or at the very least, your fire escape herb garden.
Fr. translation: white water lily
2. oz. Dutch style gin, such as Hayman’s or Ransom
.75 oz. lemon juice
.5 oz. St. Germain
.75 oz spruce simple syrup
Several dashes Bitterman’s Boston Bitters
Several more dashes Scrappy’s lavender bitters
Rosemary branch for garnish
Combine gin, lemon juice, St. Germain and syrup in a boston shaker full of ice. Shake vigorously until ice is crushed. Strain into a chilled rocks glass, ice optional. Finish with bitters and rosemary.
Nerd Tip: if you bruise the rosemary between your hands by “clapping”, it will make the drink even more aromatic.
Simple syrup is always handy to have and is incredibly easy to make. It dissolves easily into cold drinks like cocktails and iced coffee. Infusing the syrup is easy and makes for a great blank canvas to flavor seltzer, tea, shaved ice or to glaze any number of desserts.
I used equal parts of each ingredient. The result was a beautiful and rich honey colored sweetener with big woodsy and herbal notes.
For a thicker syrup you can decrease the water and/or increase the sugar.
yield: 3 qts.
7 cups water
7 cups sugar
7 cups spruce tips, lightly packed (500g., appx)
Bring all ingredients to a boil and turn down to a bare simmer for 30 min. Remove from heat and allow to steep at least 2 hours or overnight.