Eat Your Evergreens

15 Nov

Over the last year, I’ve noticed all kinds of evergreen tree elements cropping up on menus.  They’re not the easiest thing to cook with: overdo the pine, and you risk ending up with food that tastes like mouthwash. But add just a hint, and you’ll have lovely citrusy notes and distinctive fresh flavours that trigger memories of forest hikes and winter celebrations.

Recently, armed with a list of restaurants serving up forest flavours, compiled by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, I went to see how some Toronto chefs are getting creative with evergreens. So many inspiring ideas for holiday party food!

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At Mildred’s Temple’s Kitchen in Liberty Village, Chef de Cuisine Taylor McMeekin pours a cedar sauce over bison tenderloin. He balances out the conifer’s heady floral notes with hearty dark ale.

The chef also likes to add sweet cedar jelly to a cheese platter, or caper-like chopped and pickled spruce tips to the remoulade he serves with fish and chips–he grew up foraging in rural Ontario, so working wild flavours into all kinds of dishes is second nature.

Up in Greektown, at Globe Bistro, Executive Chef Dan Sanders uses a spruce tip glaze on his squab. Its citrus, caramel taste works well with poultry, as well as game and smoked fish.

Sanders takes his whole kitchen team foraging in spring, during the very brief window (four to five days) when the trees are budding. They’re careful not to take too much new growth from any one tree, and they never pick from the treetops, which would cause real damage.

But they do end the day with a few garbage bags full of spruce tips, which they bring back and boil into a tea, then strain, sweeten and reduce, so they have a lovely fresh-tasting syrup that lasts most of the year.

To make a glaze, Sanders says put 4 cups (1 L) sugar and 4 cups (1 L) spruce tips into 8 cups (2 L) water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and steep 20 minutes, strain and reduce by half.

Downtown, at Arts Square Cafe and Gallery, Leyla Kizilirmak toasts pine nuts lightly in butter until they turn pale gold and start to shimmer, releasing their oils and popcorn flavours. She uses them to add crunch to her amazing whisky and maple-drenched Canadian crepe.

Kizilirmak grew up in Turkey, where eating evergreens was a part of daily life. She remembers her mother keeping a pot of evergreen gum in the kitchen; she’d chew on it to help her digestion and freshen her breath. Every family had one. Today, the chocolatier grinds up the same kind of gum to flavour her coffee and Turkish delights for Toronto diners.

At SOMA in the cobbled old Distillery District, co-owner and chocolate maker David Castellan adds a drop of edible organic Douglas Fir oil to his tilted tree chocolates to give them the bracing quality that you’d get from after-dinner mints.

He says people have a strong reaction to their evocative flavour, and those who love them will come back with friends, so they can share in the experience. He suggests adding a drop of edible evergreen essential oil at home to chocolate mousse–or even ice cream, to make it extra chilly.

Back in Liberty Village, at Origin Liberty, beverage manager John MacDonald uses a spruce bough to garnish his Seafarer’s Sanctum. This cocktail is an ode to his native Nova Scotia, with its demerara rum, chilled Red Rose tea and blueberry syrup. There’s a dash of lemon in there too to keep the balance between sweetness, alcohol and acidity just right. Evergreens work well with robust red fruits, citrus, particularly lemon and orange, and any tannic drink, such as tea.

MacDonald bruises the spruce and rubs its oils on the rim of the glass, so you get a whiff of spruce before you even take a sip. And he uses a little twig instead of the old cocktail umbrella for a wintry garnish. Here’s the recipe!

Seafarer’s Sanctum
2 oz  Old Sam Demerara Rum
1 oz Orange Pekoe Tea (Chilled)
3/4 oz Wild Blueberry Syrup
1/2 oz Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake thoroughly with ice. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with clipped spruce bough (slap the bough between your palms to force out some oil and rim the glass) and micro-planed orange zest.

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Do you ever cook with evergreens? If so, which ones and what do you make?


3 Responses to “Eat Your Evergreens”

  1. Sue Laforge November 22nd, 2012 at 2:12 AM #

    I love these comments from different chefs like “Eat Your Evergreens”. I try them & am always amazed of how extraordinarily good tasting they are. Please send more just like it.

    • Valerie Howes November 22nd, 2012 at 10:21 AM #

      Thanks, Sue! There’s more about eating evergreens in the print version of Reader’s Digest Canada this month, so I hope you can get your hands on a copy.

  2. Leyla December 25th, 2012 at 10:53 PM #

    Some of our customers mention us about evergreen tea. How can we pick them, please? Any photos , advices for us?
    Happy New Year..

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