Planet Alaska: Spruce tips for all seasons

By Vivian Faith Prescott

For the Capital City Weekly

Gifting, attáldat, is a Sámi term meaning “our community.” Attáldat is giving and sharing to sustain the community. Last fall, my family was able to gift spruce tips to the Wrangell Cooperative Association, Wrangell’s local tribal organization. It’s almost spring now and in about two months our fishcamp family will be out harvesting spruce tips again for ourselves and for the elders in our community.

[Carrying on our traditions]

I look forward to harvesting spruce tips because it’s more than just plucking green tips from pokey spruce. Picking spruce tips means sharing, a láhi, which is a Sámi gifting worldview, meaning the land provides. Láhi is a way of knowing — our relationship between humans and the land, our way of life. Traditionally, our Sámi teachings are from nature, family, and elders and one of those important teachings is that material wealth is shared. Knowledge is also shared, which is why I share these spruce tip tips with you. Whenever I share a new recipe with family I’m often asked, “Are there spruce tips in here?” Yes, I love spruce tips — I’m the Spruce Tip Lady.

I open a package of frozen spruce tips and inhale the forest, the warm spring air, a sunny day and instant happiness. On a small cutting board, I chop them into fine green sprinkles.

Spruce tips preserved in freezer baggies. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Spruce tips preserved in freezer baggies. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

In winter I experiment with spruce tips, sharing my results with family and friends. I fold spruce tips into bread dough, stir them into sauces, sprinkle them into desserts and blend spruce tips in smoothies. We often think of spruce tips as a spring thing, but spruce tips can be enjoyed in every season. This winter I made spruce tip tzatziki sauce, added spruce tips to salmon patties, made spruce tip jelly, added spruce tips to muffins and pancakes. In the fall, I paired spruce tips in recipes with common Alaskan flavors like fireweed, blueberry and salmonberry. Last summer, I made spruce tip iced tea and spruce tip water. Year round, I make sauces for salmon and halibut using spruce tips.

If you have a few bags of spruce tips in the freezer, now is the time to use them before the harvesting season begins again. Two of the best ways to freeze spruce tips is to bag them up in plastic freezer baggies or to vacuum seal them and then freeze. Spruce tips can last up to one year.

Today, I’m making spruce tip/carrot/zucchini/ bread with spruce tip cream cheese frosting. All you need is your favroite zucchini carrot bread recipe. You’ll need flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg, eggs, your favorite oil, vanilla, and white or brown sugar. Nuts and raisin are optional but spruce tips and spruce tip juice are crucial.

Spruce tips mixed with carrots and zucchini (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Spruce tips mixed with carrots and zucchini (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

To make spruce tip bread, you’ll need a small baggie of frozen spruce tips, and get out your baggie of spruce tip juice to thaw. Spruce tip juice is something you should have in the freezer all year long. Add a bit of the juice to iced tea or other recipes when you want to flavor it with spruce. To make spruce tip juice, boil 4-6 cups of fresh spruce tips in a two quarts water. Bring it to a boil then turn it down and simmer on very low for 20-30 minutes. Let it cool then strain the spruce water into a bowl, separating out the spruce tip pulp. Save the pulp in a freezer baggie and freeze for use in smoothies and muffins. Pour the spruce tip juice into manageable small baggies or freezer containers and make sure you label them with what it is and the year.

[Eat your trees]

To make the spruce tip/carrot/zucchini bread, chop about 10 frozen spruce tips right out of the baggie, enough to make 4 tablespoons. It’s best to chop spruce tips while frozen and don’t allow them to thaw. After you’ve taken out what you need, put the baggie of spruce tips back into the freezer. I recommend using about 4 tablespoons of chopped spruce tips in a sweet bread recipe, but if this your first time trying them then use only two tablespoons. Some cooks don’t use the tart stem and prefer to use a small knife to chop only the needles. Others, like me, chop up the whole spruce tip. Also, if you want sprucier flavor, halve the vanilla measurement and replace it with spruce tip juice; and depending on the recipe, you might add a teaspoon or tablespoon of spruce tip juice in addition to the vanilla.

Grate carrots and zucchinis into a bowl and add the chopped spruce tips, mix with a spoon or fork and set aside. Then, using two separate bowls, measure and mix the dry ingredients into one bowl and the wet ingredients plus the sugar into the other. Don’t forget to replace half the vanilla with spruce tip juice or add a tad bit of spruce tip juice in addition to the vanilla. Note: Some recipes call for mixing everything into one bowl and that’s okay. I’ve experimented with adding spruce tips directly to the flour mixture and I’ve also added them to the shredded zucchini and carrots. If you’re going to try blending the spruce tips into the dry ingredients blot them dry with a paper towel first, then sprinkle them into the flour bowl and mix with a fork.

Next, add the spruce tip/carrot/zucchini mixture into the wet ingredients and blend with a wooden spoon. Then add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and gently mix with a rubber spatula or spoon, but don’t overmix. Another note: Some cooks fold in the shredded vegetables after the dry and wet ingredients are combined. However you mix it, if your bread batter looks like it needs more spruce tips, and you’re bold, sprinkle in more at one teaspoon intervals, mixing slightly with a fork.

While the scent of baking fills your kitchen, make cream cheese frosting according to your recipe, sprinkling in some spruce tip juice and 2-3 tablespoons of chopped spruce tip needles. After the bread is done and then cooled a bit in the pan, transfer it from the pan onto a cutting board. Spread the frosting on cooled bread and finish by sprinkling more chopped spruce tips onto the loaf.

As I eat a big slice of spruce tip/carrot/zucchini bread, I can hardly wait to go spruce tip harvesting and be surrounded by muskeg and moss with Canadian robins singing, my dogs beside me, as I fill my cedar bark bucket with spruce tips.

Checking on the spruce tips in wintertime in Wrangell, (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Checking on the spruce tips in wintertime in Wrangell, (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

More spruce tip tips

— Spruce tips are easier to harvest on a day when it’s not raining so that the brown husks don’t stick to your fingers.

—Wait until the husks are ready to fall off and then gently shake the branch so the husks fall off.

— Using gloves helps prevent your fingers from getting stuck with the surrounding needles.

— Freeze your spruce tips in freezer baggies or vacuum sealed for up to a year, or even longer.

— Freeze spruce tips in manageable amounts up to four cups.

— Spruce tips are easy to use when frozen. Take them out and chop.

— Average use is 1-2 chopped tablespoons per recipe.

— If you’ve never tried spruce tips, try putting a handful in a glass of water and let it steep for a few minutes.

— If you’re trying chopped spruce tips for the first time, try making shortbread cookies or folding a few chopped tips into your oatmeal or sprinkle chopped spruce tips mixed with sugar on your morning toast.

— Spruce tips are excellent in recipes that include salmonberries or blueberries.

— Spruce tips can be in addition to or substituted in recipes that call for rosemary.

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.

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