I put a handful of pine needles in the bottom of the pot, arranged the steamer basket and its contents over them, and set it over a low flame for approximately 25 minutes. I've made several different kinds of smoked salt at home using wood chips — cherry and applewood are my current favorites, though I'm eager to get my hands on some allspice (pimento) wood, as is used to prepare Jamaican jerk chicken — and I've found that 25 to 30 minutes is usually perfect, but there wasn't quite as much tree flavor in this salt as I wanted. Rather than covering it back up and smoking it longer, I added a few fresh needles to the jar I'm keeping it in, snapping them in half so as to expose more of their essential oils. This did the trick. I started with Maldon salt because it's my favorite, but you can use any type of sea salt you like.
I made good use of the salt while we were there. One efficient and instantly gratifying little carrier of its flavor is homemade crackers. I seldom make them at home — the repetitive process of rolling them out as thinly as they should be and baking off batch after batch is pretty boring — but it's no coincidence that I made crackers during last summer's visit to North Haven too; the terrific cheeses made on the island by Turner Farm's creamery are demanding in this way. I'm going to hold off on telling you about last year's cornmeal crackers until I can find my recipe for the crabapple chutney I made to go with them, but the recipe for this year's buttermilk crackers with black sesame seeds and pine salt is below.
The salt also made an appearance atop some pine-roasted beets, both before and after cooking. I should've added more needles to their foil packet but they did nonetheless manage to take on a bit of tree flavor during the process, and were thoroughly enjoyed in a big salad with lettuce and cherry tomatoes from our rented house's garden, Turner Farm's Sparkplug (an orb of aged goats' milk cheese coated with vegetable ash), seared scallops, and maple dressing (a simple vinaigrette of dark maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, s&p). A 90s-ish salad, but sitting in front of the fireplace eating it, that was not on my mind. The beets came from Turner Farm too, and I was happy to encounter their cousins later in the week, at the very pink bottom of a pickled beet martini at Nebo Lodge. I can't drink much these days — my doctor has limited me to three a week, which is every bit as tormentedly inadequate as it sounds — but if I could, I'd definitely have experimented with drinking the tree as well. Last summer I had a successful go at drinking the garden's tomatoes, a simple matter of infusing some gin with their stems. (Sniff carefully and I'm sure you'll agree that it's the stems that carry the most sun-warmed-garden-tomato fragrance, not the fruit).
But back to the tree-eating. My next project was pine shortbread cookies, and I started by infusing some butter with a handful of needles. Not nearly as many as I ought to have used, apparently, because the finished cookies didn't taste as strongly of tree as I wanted them to. I could have — and definitely should have — added more needles, and maybe even let the butter become browned, but for complicated reasons, I didn't. Instead I let it infuse for half an hour or so, strained the needles out, and put the butter back in the refrigerator to chill. It's hard to find the right balance when it comes to incorporating trees into one's diet. I bought a jar of pine honey years ago that was so strongly flavored I found it nearly unusable, and I'm sure it's still in my cabinet somewhere. (It's nice drizzled over suitably-strong cheeses, but I don't eat those nearly often enough to make much progress using it up). It's probably for the best that my cookies were under-piney rather than over- because they were extremely edible. The recipe is below, and by all means, use my photo as a reference: it needs more tree.
Norway pine shortbread
Makes approximately two dozen small cookies.
Put the pine needles and the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once the butter is melted, turn the burner off and allow the mixture to infuse for at least 30 minutes, preferably closer to an hour. Strain the needles out, pressing on them as you do to extract every bit of tree flavor, and chill the infused butter until shortly before you're ready to bake. (It will keep for a few days, tightly covered so as not to absorb other flavors from the refrigerator, and I'm sure it freezes as nicely as plain butter does).
Combine the flour, cornstarch, and a pinch of the salt in a bowl. (If your salt is coarse, like my Maldon, crush it a bit as you're adding it). In another bowl, cream together the softened butter and the powdered sugar until they're thoroughly combined. Add the butter and sugar mixture to the flour mixture and stir (or mix with your hands) just until everything is combined and forms a crumbly dough. Pat it into a disk, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it chill for approximately 15 minutes. (Any longer than that and it'll be hard to work with; you can chill it for longer, but if you do you'll want to take it out and let it come to temperature before proceeding).
Heat the oven to 325° F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cut two more sheets of parchment paper and use them to roll out your dough approximately 1/4" thick: one sheet on the counter, one between the dough and your rolling pin. Cut it into cookies with a cookie cutter or a sharp knife. Sprinkle the cookies with the smoked salt to taste, gently patting it down to help it adhere.