There's nothing quite like a young spring spruce tip, but the mature needles still have a lot of flavor too. I knew that people make tea from older branches, so I thought it would be fun to make some sort of water based infusion as the base of a dish using a brine for chicken.
A simple brine turned out to be a great way to absorb the scent of the needles. All I needed then was a piece of meat to brine, luckily in the freezer I had a little poussin. (Real quick, this recipe is made with mature needles, see my post on general cooking with spruce tips for more).
Poultry, pork, and fish have mellow flavors, and I knew the brine wouldn't be incredibly aggressive, so I grabbed the little chicken and got to work.
If you wanted to make something like this with beef or game, cedar berries will make a much stronger scented brine that would be great with them-store bought juniper berries will give a similar effect too.
One thing I need to mention about the brine though is that the above picture shows the spruce branches whole- they shouldn't be.
The needles are actually pureed with the brine in a blender, but I experimented first with using whole branches for the brine instead of pureeing them, which gives a much stronger brine, I just forgot to take a picture of the brine after it was buzzed up in the blender.
The poussin is also butterflied or "spatch-cocked", which helps it cook faster and allows the entire skin of the bird to contact the pan and get crisp. Here's what I do:
- lay the whole bird flat on it's breast.
- Make a slit from the neck to the tail, then work carefully to remove the spine, continue with the ribcage, wishbones, and thigh bones.
- Lastly, remove the end of each wing at the first joint.
I served the poussin with a fun sauce I came up with a while ago using apples and mustard. It also goes great with pork. If you're feeling ambitious sometime you should try taking some water soaked wood chips and putting them on the hot coals of a grill, then smoking the peeled, whole apples for 15 minutes or so before you cook them, it's really good.
You could also smoke the apples with the reserved dried spruce branches left over from making the brine, which will layer flavors a bit more.
Spruce Brined Poussin, With Apple Mustard Sauce
- Large container for brining
- 1 young poussin or cornish game hen
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- High smoke point cooking oil or lard for cooking the poussin
- 1 recipe spruce brine follows
- 1 recipe apple mustard sauce follows-optional
- Lay the poussin breast down on a cutting board. Make an incision from top to bottom along the backbone, then, working carefully, remove the backbone, ribcage, and thigh bones, also remove the tips of the wings, if desired (this is mostly for aesthetics).
- Add the poussin to the brine, weight it down with a plate to keep it under the brine, and refrigerate it for 48 hours.
- When it's time to cook the poussin, remove it from the brine and pat it dry completely with paper towels. Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a large saute pan until smoking, then add the poussin, skin side down to the pan.
- Transfer the pan to the oven and cook until the poussin is just done, and the juices from the thigh run clear when pierced, about 15 minutes. Place the pan with the poussin in it back on the burner and heat it again gently (this helps to allow the skin to release if it has stuck at all to the pan). Remove the poussin from the pan, transfer it to a heated serving dish and serve immediately with the apple mustard sauce on the side.
Spruce Needle Brine
- About 2-3 healthy 1ft long branches of a non-bitter spruce tree, needles removed to yield around 2 cup lightly packed needles, twigs reserved for another purpose, like smoking.
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ½ gallon water
- Place the spruce and half the water to cover, along with the salt in a high speed blender. Puree the mixture until the spruce is broken up fine, and the liquid is very aromatic--a minute or two.
- Add the spruce mixture to the remaining water in a pot, bring to a simmer, and cool completely.
- Reserve the brine until needed.
Apple Mustard Sauce
- 1 lb hard baking apples like granny smith braeburn or gala, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon shallot diced ¼ in
- 2 tablespoon whole grain mustard
- 1 qt strong homemade chicken stock reduced to 1 cup
- Kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper
- Apple cider vinegar to taste, a teaspoon or so
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup calvados or brandy
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large saute pan. Add the shallots and apples and cook until caramelized and soft, about 5-10 minutes.
- Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan with the calvados or brandy, then reduce until the pan is nearly dry, about 5 minutes.
- Add the chicken stock and heat through, then transfer the sauce to a highspeed blender and puree until very fine. Pass the mixture through a chinois or fine mesh strainer, then transfer to a small saucepot, add the mustard, apple cider vinegar, and butter and bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking constantly until the butter thickens the sauce slightly.
- Double check the sauce for salt, pepper, and acid, adjust if needed, then serve immediately. The sauce can be made days in advance.