Have you had any spruce tip conserve pickle with your venison lately? How about pine meringue pie? This family of what we think of as spruce and pines -- they’re really conifers -- are what chefs are beginning to experiment with. The inspiration may have come from the Danish chef Rene Redzepi, who has done so much with leaves and bark, but there are experts much closer to home.

Nova Kim is one of the people who’s not only supplying these chefs, but also training them. She’s a wildcrafter, and Kim and her partner teach wildcrafting at colleges throughout Vermont, where they also supply restaurants. 

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You call yourself a wildcrafter. Why not a forager?

Conifer needles Simple conifer recipes

Nova Kim: Because if you really look at the etymology of that term, it means to strip or ravage. A good wildcrafter -- a collector, a gatherer, a harvester -- never does that. There are a lot of really good collectors who have kind of gotten stuck with that title because that’s what people have come to know it as, but who really need to claim back their original name, and that is a collector who gathers. For 90,000 years, we were hunters and gatherers, and then I think when they ran out of words they started calling us “foragers.”

LRK: Let’s talk about this idea of eating trees. We don’t think about eating this family very often. Can you give us a rundown of what each type tastes like?

NK: Spruce is frequently compared to rosemary. Balsam has a tendency to pair better with sweets; it’s not as strong and as intense as the spruce. The white pine is the mildest. Then of course there’s my favorite, which is the concolor, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange fresh zest.

LRK: What does a concolor look like?

NK: Well, the concolor is a beautiful long-, blue-needled fir and it’s native out West.

LRK: How do you gather these? What’s the best way to do this? Is there a time of year or is there something in particular to look for?

NK: It depends upon what specifically you’re using it for. The normal time for collecting it is in the spring when the fresh, new, young, tender tips are out, which is kind of true with most all of your plants: young, fresh, tender. These do handle themselves very well inasmuch as you can freeze them so you can use them later. But when you’re collecting them, you want to keep in mind that what you’re taking is that year’s growth, so you take it sparingly. You don’t just go in and ravage the tree; you take it here and there because any place you take it from a tree is going to affect that year’s growth. It’s like anything else when you’re pruning, you want to balance it.

Today we’re going to have some scallops, some diver scallops, and we’re using concolor and a very nice butter that’s been infused with it. It has a very subtle taste. I think a lot of people think that if they’re using the wild firs, pines and spruces, that they’re going to overpower everything -- some definitely will depending upon how you’re doing it. For instance, the concolor is very, very subtle, so it works well on something that’s light. But one of the best tasting treats I’ve ever had was spruce ice cream.

LRK: So the cream was infused with the spruce?

NK: Right. Or if you’re doing sorbet, you can make a simple syrup too.

LRK: Are all the firs, spruces and pines edible, or are there ones that we should be cautious about?

NK: There are a couple of western pines -- the loblolly and another one -- that they are not certain of. Unless you’re sure, you shouldn’t. That’s like anything else: Be sure of what you’re eating. Generally speaking, I would term spruce as edible, the Eastern white pine and firs are edible; in that sense you shouldn’t run into any trouble.

Now that’s not something you go out and chew on, although you could just take minor nibbles off of them. But you use it more in cooking. Then you can use the tips, the needles and even on some of them you can use the inner bark and make almost a potato chip. I think it’s like anything: You have to know how to properly handle them. If you’re infusing them, you make certain that you strain them out with a very fine strainer and sieve.

LRK: Where’s a good place for a beginner to start cooking with these? What would be something that would be relatively simple?

NK: They could do something as simple as taking some white pine and infusing it, just putting it into some nice apple cider vinegar, and then storing it for about a month out of sight. Then you have a very nice vinegar that’s very high in vitamin C; you can use it in cooking.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.