Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sweetest Tree

It has snowed here nearly every day for the last week, interspersed with rain, freezing rain, and sleet, and the frigid precipitation has been accompanied at times by gale-force winds. We had a break from all that yesterday, a pleasant, sunny day when the temperature tiptoed into the 40s. The sun was strong—I got a bit of color on my winter-pale face, I noticed as I brushed my teeth last night—and our yard turned to slush by mid-afternoon.

But all good things must come to an end, they say, and that warm, bright idyll will seem as a dream today when snow and rain and snow again return, and the streams may flood and windchill makes it feel like February. Well, what the freakin’ ever…. Last spring, March in particular, was freakishly warm, so I guess this is just how we come by our historical average temperatures, or it’s evidence of global weather weirding, or something. There is not much we can do but piss and moan, and pretty much everyone I know has been doing plenty of that.

It’s true, this endless winter of a springtime is not good for much, but in attempting to look on the bright side, here are a few pluses amid all the grimness: We haven’t seen any ticks yet, where in a mild winter we sometimes encounter them in the midst of a February thaw. Likewise, no sign of mosquitoes. Small blessings, perhaps, but we must take what we can get.

Also, once the fruit trees bloom, they probably won’t be hit as bad by late frost as they were last year, when all our fruit—from apples to wild black cherry, nannyberries and hawthorn—took a hit. Only the blackberries produced a decent crop.

And then, with springtime so drastically deferred, once it does warm up we’ll likely see an amazing confluence of blooms as everything bursts into flower at once, to catch up with the season. That’s something to look forward to.

Finally, this reluctant spring has been ideal for a seasonal rite cherished across our part of the northland: maple sugaring. With freezing nights and daytime temperatures creeping at least a little bit above 32, the sap has been flowing for the last couple of weeks, and has really picked up in the last few days. Last year, the sudden March heat put an end to the sugaring season pretty much before it started. This year is looking like a banner year; I have ten trees tapped, and nearly two gallons of finished syrup made, the most I’ve ever done in three years of sugaring. I’ll probably stop collecting sap in a couple of days, cook down what I have stored, and look forward to many happy pancake breakfasts ahead. Then maybe I’ll tap a couple birch trees, to diversify our stock of sweeteners.

Collecting the sap and boiling it down has been easier (and thus, much more enjoyable) this year for a number of reasons: one, living here full-time makes it much easier to keep on top of the process, since I can manage things a little bit at a time. Also, whereas collecting sap at Bide-A-Wee meant hauling heavy containers quite a distance over bumpy terrain, and mostly uphill, the trees I’ve tapped here are just a couple hundred yards up the hill from the house. I pour the sap into five- to seven-gallon containers, put those in our beat-up but still serviceable black plastic sled, and it’s an easy cruise downhill to the house.

 Boiling down the sap was problematic in the past, as well. My method this year is not terribly sophisticated, but it’s a step up from previous years and shows a good deal of Yankee ingenuity, if I say so myself. What I did was, I took an old oil-burning heater that had been dumped in our woods, and I disemboweled it so I was left with a big metal box, about the size of a dehumidifier, open on one long and one short side, the other short side covered with venting slits. I bought a hotel pan, like the ones you see on buffet lines, to be my evaporating pan. To make it fit, I attached some strips of metal roofing material (left over from the garage we had built last year) to the sides of the larger opening. I placed a grate from our portable fire pit in the bottom, to elevate the wood a bit and provide good air circulation—it fit perfectly. Set this half-assed sap contraption up on cinder blocks, and I was ready to go.

The important feature of this contrivance, something I noticed looking at boilers built specifically for syrup making, is that the evaporating pan fits right down in the fire box. This way you’re getting heat not just on the bottom, but on the four sides, as well. It’s sort of the surround-sound concept applied to syrup making.

My boiler is not that efficient, and could be improved, I’m sure (for instance, I could line it with fire brick to retain more heat), but I’m a small-timer at this, and plan to remain so. I’ll make what small adjustments occur to me over time, but mostly I just hope my salvage operation of a boiler lasts me a couple of years. I know now that you can cobble something together from mostly found materials that really works quite well. I don’t cook the syrup all the way down in the boiler. I take the sap down to maybe one-tenth its original volume, bring it inside and strain it through a scrap of old dish towel into my 5-quart Le Creuset pot (aka “Big Blue”). That sits on the woodstove, and the sap reduces gently until it’s almost syrup. A final, closely supervised boiling, either on the woodstove or the electric range, finishes the syrup off. To determine when it’s done, I just go by feel and taste—I’ll dip in a spoon, pull it out and let it cool for a few moments, and taste. When it was the flavor and viscosity of syrup, well, I figure that’s syrup. I usually let it bubble for around five more minutes, then take it off the heat and bottle it.

If you’re interested in making maple syrup yourself, there’s still time, if you’re above 45-degrees north latitude, and you have access to some trees. Virtually any kind of maple, even box elders, can be tapped for sap. There are various on-line tutorials to show you how to get started, but a wonderful resource for maple fanciers has just been published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the second title in the Northern Plate series (the first was Kim Ode’s Rhubarb Renaissance, which made a tart-sweet splash last spring).

The new title is by my friend Teresa Marrone, and it’s called Modern Maple. In it Teresa has compiled around 75 maple-inspired recipes, along with a brief history of maple syrup, and step-by-step instructions for DIY-ers. I know her method is sound because she’s the one who got me started, in 2009. I made a visit to her house in south Minneapolis where she had a couple of big silver maples tapped in her yard. Since then I’ve purchased a few commercially-made metal spiles, and those clever blue bag hanger devices for collecting the sap, but I started out with PVC tubing and repurposed plastic pickle buckets from the burger joint in our former Saint Paul neighborhood. (Here are my maple posts from 2009 and 2010; seems maybe we didn’t do any tapping in 2011, as I was feverishly working on finishing the book that spring, and then 2012, as mentioned, was a bust because of the weather.)

The recipes in Modern Maple beautifully illustrate the versatility of maple syrup in the kitchen. While the flavor of maple is beloved by many, I still think it’s underrated as an ingredient. Teresa’s book should help to correct that situation. Many of the recipes highlight maple’s unique sweetness, but there are also many great examples of how well it works in counterpoint with other flavors like vinegar and citrus, chile heat, and various spices, including a favorite of mine, Sichuan pepper (although I am mildly dismayed to see the outdated Szechuan used in Teresa’s book; unfortunately, many style books haven’t caught up with the times).

I like the sound of her Sweet and Spicy Chile-Maple Dipping Sauce, and I may have to make a batch of her Near-Beer Peanuts tonight for a happy hour snack. Other tasty sounding dishes that caught my eye: Red Cabbage and Berry Salad and Escarole and Radish Salad with Smoky Maple Dressing; Corn on the Cob with Spiced Maple Glaze; Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb-Maple Sauce and Cheese Grits (though I’d probably use a humbler, tastier cut of pork, like cutlets from the shoulder, or country-style ribs); and Shortbread with Maple Caramel and Sea Salt.

Teresa recently started a blog, which will certainly be worth reading. All the recent interest in wild foods has been great in highlighting the qualities of these most local of foods, and Teresa’s involvement in the topic goes back way before foraging became trendy; she’s the real deal, indeed.

With all this sap boiling down around here, I’ve been using a lot of it in my cooking. When I’m making bread I’ll add a ladle of not-quite-syrup to the dough, to the obvious delight of the yeast in my starter. The other night I came up with a dandy topping for broiled fish, combining fresh bread crumbs from a flavorful sourdough loaf with butter (warm these together so the butter is integrated), toasted sesame seeds, ground roasted Sichuan pepper, and a moistening of maple syrup (I think there was something spicy in there, too, perhaps a couple of pinches of espelette or similar fragrant, not too hot chile).  Pat this mixture liberally on a skinless fish fillet--I used Lake Superior herring--get an oven-proof fry pan hot, and fire up the broiler, too.  Add a little oil to the pan and gently slide or lift the fish into the pan.  Then move it directly to the broiler, five or six inches away, and broil until the topping is nicely browned.  The syrup in the mixture sort of welds everything together into a crunchy caramelized crust, and the direct heat of the broiler really brings out the fragrance of the Sichuan pepper.

I get sort of fanatical about not wasting even a drop of syrup—I’m all too aware of the time and effort required to make it—and this has led me to some delightful treats. A couple of days ago I found a bit of tea left in the pot, and a recently emptied, not yet washed pan from reducing syrup. I deglazed that maple pot with the tea, added a generous portion of whole milk from a local farm, and warmed the mixture on the woodstove: Maple milk tea, the woodcutter’s delight.

I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any kind of maple syrup, and in the past couple of years most of what we’ve used has been purchased. The homemade stuff, though, that’s a different thing entirely. When the sap is reduced over a wood fire, it does pick up a hint of smokiness, which you don’t tend to find in the commercial syrup. And then, your own syrup expresses the terroir from which it sprung—no other syrup will taste quite the same. Also, you get to see how the syrup changes through the season, generally going from a lighter, more refined tasting syrup early in the run, when the sugar concentrations are highest, to darker syrup with more robust flavors as sugaring nears its end, and the sap requires longer boiling times.

It is, indeed, a hell of a lot of work, for what can sometimes seem meager results. And you simply must do it yourself to have any comprehension of what’s required to turn something between 30 to 40 gallons of sap into a gallon of syrup. But however much syrup you wind up with, it’s gold, it’s magic, it’s something more than food and more than sweetness. It’s the taste of the northern forest, distilled into amber genius.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw