A Sweet and Savory Wild Seasoning

by Ellen Zachos

The mountains of northern New Mexico are chock full of stately evergreens. While most people know that pine nuts come from piñon pines, very few realize that spruce trees also offer up excellent flavor to the adventurous eater. We have two spruce species native to northern New Mexico. Both the Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and the Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) produce edible tips that contain loads of vitamin C and have a tart flavor that the creative cook can use in any number of ways.

Spruce are large trees, generally pyramidal in shape, with attractive green/blue or gray/blue foliage. Their needles grow individually from the branch (similar to rosemary), rather than in bundles like pines. Depending on your altitude, you may harvest spruce tips anytime from April to August. In the Sangre de Cristos, look for the light green, soft, flexible tips to emerge in June. (It’s more important to note what the spruce tree says than what the calendar says.) All spruce trees produce edible tips as long as they haven’t been sprayed with something humans shouldn’t eat, such as insecticide. If you’re hiking above six thousand feet (the preferred altitude of the Engelmann spruce in New Mexico), it’s unlikely anyone has been out there spraying.

In early spring, spruce trees produce new growth covered in brown, papery sheaths. Gently remove one of the sheaths to find small, young needles, just beginning to expand. These spruce tips can be harvested from the time they first emerge until they begin to stiffen and turn dark green. You’ll get more to work with if you wait until the tips expand, but the flavor is more intense when the tips are compact. As long as the dividing line between old and new growth is clear, both by sight and by texture, you’re OK to harvest.

Because the new growth is soft, you’ll be able to pinch it off with your fingers, no tools required. Harvesting the tips removes the current year’s growth, so walk around the tree, taking just a few tips from each section of the spruce. That will keep the tree from growing in lopsided.

Young spruce tips have a citrus-like flavor that complements both sweet and savory dishes. Even young needles are tough to chew, but there are plenty of ways to extract their unique flavor. Use them as a stuffing for chicken or fish, finely chop the spruce tips to use them in sauce or soup, or macerate them in water or alcohol to create a base for frozen desserts and beverages.

To make spruce sugar or spruce salt, add equal parts sugar or salt and spruce tips to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until the mix is finely chopped and thoroughly combined. Spread it out on a cookie sheet and allow it to dry at room temperature, then store your mixture in a jar. Sprinkle the spruce tip salt on root vegetables before roasting, and use the spruce tip sugar in spruce tip shortbread cookies.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the flavor of spruce tips is to infuse them in simple syrup, then use that syrup to make spruce tip ice cream or sorbet. It’s a refreshing and unusual way to end a meal: a dessert that embodies the flavor of northern New Mexico.

Get the recipe for Spruce Tip Ice Cream.

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