Budding Needles

Budding Cedar of Lebanon by Ayala Moriel
Budding Cedar of Lebanon, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Last week I had the short-lived yet delightful opportunity to forage a minute amount of spring needle tips with my mom to use in teas.

Conifers were not made equal, and some were better suited for this purpose. Notably, Douglas fir and some types of spruce produces the most delightful young needles: tender like sprouting wheatgrass; and soft like a silky tassels. But of course what's most important is their aromatic and flavour profile: look for spring tips that have a delightful refreshing yet sweet aroma, reminiscent of lemon zest and tangerine peel and a breath of forest after rain.

How can you tell which ones to pick? If you don't know the specific species, use your senses to assess the tea potential of these spring forest buds. Rub them between your fingers and inhale. If the scent appeals to you, that's a good start. But what's most important is the taste. Don't hesitate to nibble on some (they should be soft and tender when you pick them, so don't worry about puncturing your cheeks...). If they taste acrid, dry and bitter - forget about them. If they are slightly tart, delicately aromatic and leave only very little dryness in your mouth this would also be your experience when you brew them into a tea.

The tips pictured above are of Cedar of Lebanon (taken at the Van Dusen Botanical Garden). These look pretty and feel soft; but don't have any of the qualities you'd want in a forest-foraged-tea. Below are Douglas fir spring needle tips. They are very short and require a lot of work to harvest; but their aroma is superb! And to boot, they are rich in vitamin C, which would be a wonderful supplement for your immune system in the spring or any time of the year.

Douglas Fir Needle Tips

Once picked, spread the needle tips or "tassels" on a tray to thoroughly dry in the shade: away from light, heat and, of course, humidity. Once they are thoroughly dry, store in an airtight container and steep in boiling water to make a delicious, fragrant tea (1 tsp per 250ml) that can be served warm or chilled.

Spring Forest Risotto

Spring Forest Risotto by Ayala Moriel
Spring Forest Risotto, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.

Yesterday's foraging expedition got me in love with the rainforest all over again. And so I've decided to cook a special risotto for dinner tonight, that uses fresh seasonal vegetables and also makes use of unusual ingredients that spark my imagination.

I got a bunch of fresh, crisp organic asparagus at the farmer's market, and I've been thinking long and hard about what stock would work for an asparagus risotto?

A little voice in my head kept whispering something about green tea. But I couldn't pick the right one (and using the finest green tea I've got in a risotto seemed like a sacrilege...). But I knew that there was something better out there on my tea shelf... And finally it came to me: Hall's Fir Tip Tea!

I set to action, using young organic leeks instead of onions of shallots, sauteeing them in ghee (it's better than butter for cooking, in my opinion, as it doesn't scorch so easily). Then came the carnaroli rice, and quickly I realized that I was out of white wine... And that the white wine would have probably killed the "tea" flavour anyway with it's cheesy, yeasty afternotes. So of course, I used the last few drops of Hendricks' gin I had on hand instead, to much delight, and than proceeded with pouring the infused fir tip tea, a little bit at a time until it absorbs completely into the rice.

To make the fresh, delicate tastes really shine I've added no spices at all except for Maldon sea salt flakes. And the asparagus was steamed on the side and then incorporated into the risotto just before serving, and than topped with parmesan cheese.

The result is a very light, refreshing risotto, full of flavour of the forest and great contrast of textures: crunchy tender asparagus vs the creamy, starchy rice. The forest notes are not overpowering but are definitely there in the best way.

This risotto would go well with a white sparkling wine, the infused elderflowers with San Pellegrino - or, as we had it: with the remaining pot of fir tip tea sipped happily until the very last grain of rice was gone...

Spring Forest Risotto


2 tea bags of Juniper Ridge's Douglas Fir Tip Tea

1 L Boiling water

1.5 cups Carnaroli rice, washed well and drained

2 young leeks (or 1 large), greens included

2 Tbs butter or ghee (if you're vegan, you may use a light vegetable oil as well, such as grapeseed oil)

2 Tbs gin

Small bunch of asparagus (about 6 stalks), steamed and cut into large chunks

Parmesan cheese

- Steep the tea bags in boiling water

- Cut the leek (greens and all!) into thin slices

- Steam the asparagus until it snaps easily (do not overcook!). Cut into short pieces.

- Sutee in ghee until tender and transparent. Add a pinch of salt.

- Add the washed and drained rice and stir well for about 1 minute

- Add the gin and cook until the alcohol evaporated completely. Add a pinch of salt.

- Begin adding the tea, only a little bit at a time - just enough to cover the rice. Cook till it absorbs, and only then add more of the tea. Add a pinch of salt between each addition of

- Once all the liquids absorbed into the rice, and the rice is tender (not mushy - it should have a consistency similar to an "al dente" pasta), it's ready. Remove from heat.

- Adjust seasoning (salt only if required). You may want to ad a tiny bit of shaved juniper berries as well. Pepper is not appropriate for this dish as it's aroma will overpower the tea infusion.

- To serve - mix the rice with the asparagus pieces, and with Parmesan cheese to taste. Add a few larger pieces on the top for garnish. Add more shaved Parmesan cheese on the top.

- This recipe will go great with wild asparagus as well, of course. You may also use fiddleheads while they'r in season in place of the asparagus.

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