Wednesday, May 28

Real Maple Syrup

Other than the sweet, short hour I had in a ridiculously well-stocked hostel in Santa Fe and my two (2!) successful camp fire feasts, I have gone exactly three weeks without a kitchen.

I wish I could post about the culinary marvels I've conjured out of thin air, with only a hot car hood, salt from evaporated spring water, and some wild field greens at my disposal...but I can't, and won't. Instead, let me focus on one of the few foods I can't make, and in fact feel quite strongly that no one should try to replicate: maple syrup.

My father was the first maple-syrup-purist in my life. He wouldn't order waffles or pancakes in restaurants, since they would inevitably be served with "that fake sugar crap." (See also: his standing refusal to order a Caesar salad since most restaurants don't make their own dressing). The exception was french toast, which could and would be served with appropriate (often fake, sugary) jams and butters.

Every Christmas he would order a gallon of real Maine maple syrup from L.L. Bean -- a gift for my grandmother that we would enjoy year-round as we put her waffle-maker and her L.L. Bean cookbook to good use. Since our smaller nuclear family had neither the waffle-maker nor the syrup, when we weren't at grandma's house we had to make do with Bisquick pancakes and fruit syrup, an inferior but marginally acceptable substitute.

Beyond the fact that the syrup had to originate in the surging heart and veins of a maple tree, it had to be served warm, preferably in a small pitcher on a small plate, so as to best catch the inevitable drips. I remember making pancakes for a school fundraiser, and insisting that we boil the (plastic-packaged, generic brand) syrup, so that it could be served warm. Of course it boiled over, coating the pan, the burner, the stovetop, and a good portion of my upper body with a sticky, bubbly, scorching mess. Only then did I realize that most syrup consumers enjoy their breakfast topping cold, or at best, at a murky room-temperature.

I maintain my preference in warm syrup, and additional throw my hat in with the "dippers" as opposed to the "pourers". When you douse your breakfast with syrup, it seeps into the crevices of your blueberry pancakes or pecan waffles, merging flavors and textures. I prefer to maintain the independence of flavor profiles, as well as the smooth, slippery texture garnered from gingerly coating each piece in its own sticky bath.

Did anyone else read Laura Ingalls Wilder's inaugural tale, Little House in the Big Woods? If you did, perhaps you remember the section where Pa bled syrup from the trees during the winter, and the girls would drizzle it on fresh snow. I've never tried this -- is our snow clean enough these days? (Not in Philadelphia) -- but the concept remains captivating.

To bring this narrative to present-day, I originally intended to post about maple syrup when we were in Toronto, where our gracious hosts treated us with superb french toast and...real Maine maple syrup. But isn't Canada famous for their maple syrup? Well, yes. But Maine is practically Canada. Right? Sure. Either way, it's delicious, particularly (thank you, Nimoy), when surreptitiously added to the batter and proudly served at the table. (Brilliant).

Since leaving the north, however, we've dined at several fine establishments including the ubiquitous Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses that dot the southern United States. The indistinguishable photograph above highlights a stack of pancakes served at the former locale, with -- you won't believe -- a tiny bottle of 100% real maple syrup. I was so excited I saved half the contents, and smuggled them into the latter eatery, which does not offer the real goods. That tiny bottle, which probably held three simple tablespoons of drizzle-able goodness, elevated both dining experiences to the sublime. (I kid not).

On a more practical note, here are a few facts you should bear in mind as you seek out real maple syrup, which I know you all will.

First, maple syrup is offered in a variety of grades, which should be clearly marked on the bottle. Here's the basic breakdown:

Grade A Light Amber is very light and has a mild, delicate flavor. It is usually harvested early in the season when the weather is quite cool. This grade is preferred for making maple candy and maple cream.

Grade A Medium Amber, a bit darker, has a correlating increase in maple flavor. It is the most popular grade of table syrup, and is usually made after the sugaring season begins to warm, about mid-season.

Grade A Dark Amber is darker yet, with a stronger maple flavor. It is usually made later in the season as the days get longer and warmer.

Grade B, sometimes called Cooking Syrup, is made late in the season and appears very dark with a very strong maple flavor, as well as some caramel flavors. Although many people use this for table syrup, because of its strong flavor it is often used for cooking, baking, and flavoring special foods.

Edit: Apparently the Canadians use a different system for grading their maple syrup. Be advised.

Secondly, you may be curious how maple syrup is collected:

Maple syrup does, in fact, trace its roots to the majestic maple tree. Specimens that are adequately wide (at least 12" in diameter) are tapped, a (painless, for the plant-lovers out there) process of removing the sap from the tree. The harvest takes place during the spring, when the sap that was frozen during winter begins to thaw and flow. Generally a tree will tolerate two or three taps but since sap is to trees what blood is to human bodies...well, you get the idea. This is why maple syrup is expensive -- but worth every penny! After the sap is collected it is highly perishable, and must be boiled down to an appropriate syrup.

And on that note, you might be wondering how they come up with the fake stuff.

When we ran out of L.L. Bean syrup Grandma would make sure Dad was securely nested in the living room, and concoct a small pot of sugar water tinted with maple flavoring. This was boiled down until the liquid reached syrup-consistency, and the impostor would proudly take its place at the table. Dad, of course, always knew. Store-bought varieties of "maple syrup" often include ample amounts of the pernicious and ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup, as well as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Yuck.

Finally, some suggested uses for your concentrated tree-blood:

+ Maple syrup enjoyed a surge in popularity when health-conscious bakers realized it made a lovely replacement for white cane sugar. You made need to adjust the recipe a bit, as I find the maple syrup slightly sweeter and more flavorful than plain castor sugar.

+ An obvious use: breakfast foods, but think outside the box of griddle-based starches. Maple syrup adds a lovely depth and sweetness to cooked grains like oatmeal, quinoa, or polenta. You can also drizzle it on fruit or spike your morning beverage with a hint of maple sugar.

+ Consider maple syrup when concocting any caramelized foods, including but not limited to onions, roasted squash, beets, and tofu. And, maple syrup makes an excellent glaze for a variety of proteins and vegetables.

With all of that said, please do remember that maple syrup is sugar. Use it, but use it wisely and perhaps sparingly. Think of where it came from, the laborious hours the stately trees took to churn sunlight and water into a strong and sweet sap -- and imbibe with thanks and mindfulness.

Edit: Click here to read, sadly, about rising maple syrup prices.

Tuesday, May 20

Camp Food!

During our one triumphant night camping (sans rain) I managed to make fire. There is something almost divine about successfully building a camp fire; I am reminded of Prometheus, and then Pandora, and eventually Zeus himself. Our little campfire didn't let loose too many evils, and there was no lightning, but we did conjure up some darn good camp food.

When I think of camp food I think of six things:

(1) Potatoes, baked in the coals to a crisp black then smothered in butter and salt

(2) Hot dogs, roasted on sticks and again smothered in some sort of tangy sauce

(3) Baked beans, heated in a fire-safe pan and enjoyed on tin plates that can double as accompaniments to campfire songs

(4) Hot cereal, concocted in a fire-safe pan and amped-up with walnuts, cream, and dried apricots or raisins

(5) Bananas stuffed with peanut butter and chocolate chips (and, perhaps, marshmellows), baked in tin foil boats

and, of course,
(6) S'mores.

On the night in question -- the first dry evening of our escapade -- we attempted options (2), sort of (3), and the quintessential (6). We roasted vegan hot dogs, then roughly chopped them into a tin of (cold, delicious) vegetarian baked beans. I considered a punnet of cherry tomatoes, but allowed myself to be distracted by the planning of dessert.

Two notes on the preparation of proper campfire s'mores:

1) Melt the chocolate. Come on, people, if you are going to make s'mores, go hard or go home. I propped the graham crackers, topped with chunks of dark chocolate, on the edge of the fire pit, balanced on one of the remaining logs. Yes, one batch melted right into the fire (who knew graham crackers could liquify?) , but overall the effort was absolutely worthwhile.

(2) There are two approaches to the toasting of the marshmellow:
A) Puncture marshmellow with stick; thrust stick in coals/flames; wait 2.3 seconds until marshmellow ignites; blow out fire and enjoy blackened marshmellow product. (Not preferred).
B) Puncture marshmellow with stick; hold an appropriate distance from coals/flames, watching assiduously; rotate when pasty white turns to golden brown (like you're tanning the marshmellow); when all sides are browned, slide marshmellow off stick to waiting warmed graham crackers. (Preferred, because the marshmellow is warm and melted all the way through).

Either method you choose, the final step is most important: Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 14

Convenience: Fiber Bars

We're on the open road, currently regrouping just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. I wish this post could highlight the joys of Maker's Mark bourbon, since we were scheduled to tour the distillery earlier today, but after a series of unfortunate events and bad luck/karma we had to settle for a shot of Maker's Mark out of a plastic beer cup in a smoky bar 1/2 mile down the road.

I'll get to the Maker's Mark post someday, but in the meantime here's a shout-out to the food product that kept us going through our tribulations: Gnu Food High Fiber Bars.

Gnu bars are made from 100% natural ingredients, including organic whole wheat flour, oats, wheat bran, psyllium, flax and millet. Unlike many other car-friendly snacks-in-a-wrapper, these bars are soft, moist, slightly chewy, and full of flavor. And one Gnu bar provides nearly 50% of your RDA of fiber!

At this point my cohort is sort of over the fiber bars -- which is a good thing since there are only two left! The peanut butter flavor was my favorite, with the cinnamon raisin at a close second. Once those run out we're relying on trail mix and cold s'more mixings.

Saturday, May 10

The (Home) Cheese Course

Today we finally meandered over to Kensington Market in Toronto, in search of cheese, produce, and a belt. We were two for three, but in lieu of a belt we found food products galore. Purple potatoes, ripe avocados at $1 each, habaneros, tomatillos, Ataulfo mangoes, and fresh chives; muesli baguette, rum balls, and cannoli; and at the cheese store, for the win, smoked gouda from Holland, Chamblie from France (raw goat's milk, wrapped in bark!), and a semi-hard goat cheese from Italy (whose name I can neither procure online nor remember offhand).

Nimoy excels at creating really beautiful snack spreads. This is something I wish I did, but when I snack I tend to wander through the kitchen, discontentedly sifting through the contents of the cupboards and refrigerator and grazing on bits here and there. The process is massively unsatisfying, both for my hunger as well as that innate snacking drive that seems so rarely satiated. I wish I were the type to sit down for tea and cookies, or wine and cheese, or beer and veggie dips, every afternoon around 3-4pm...but when I'm eating alone that sort of organization seems so formal and time-consuming.

So, it's a real treat when I visit Toronto and Nimoy/Allison inspires me to Do It Right. Every time I visit we manage to gather an incredible array of fruits, cheeses, breads, and spreads, and this trip we may have hit a new best. We sliced apples and pears, shaved off pieces of mango, arranged a pleasant mound of peeled almonds, opened the jar of tangelo marmalade I brought (recipe courtesy of VeganYumYum, although I added about 1/3 cup of brandy, a bit more sugar, and a generous tablespoon of fruit pectin), set out the last of the honey, laid out grape tomatoes and cubed avocados, sliced the baguette, and opened our cheese parcels.

Really, a good cheese plate simply requires cheese, bread or crackers, and honey. Nuts and fruit are the natural extension, and if you're feeling creative a variety of spreads or jams can also be quite pleasant. The trick is to choose accompaniments that compliment, rather than overwhelm, the cheese selections. Mustard is a natural pairing with cheddars; I find that salty, savory spreads like tapenade or pesto work quite well with goat cheeses; candied nuts are fantastic with aged Goudas; in life and in food, blues love chocolate; and harder Italian varieties work nicely with sweet sides like honey or fruit jams.

The other goal, in my opinion, is to choose a good variety of cheeses that excite without overwhelming. I like something soft, something firm, something hard, and maybe something stinky or blue. You can decide whether you want to focus on a particular geographic region (e.g. an assortment of Italian cheeses -- you have plenty to choose from), compare similar styles from different regions (e.g. a goat cheese from the Loire and a goat cheese from Northern California), pick similar types of cheese (e.g. an array of the creamiest, most luscious cheeses you can find) or choose contrasting iconic cheeses (e.g. Dutch Gouda and Spanish Manchego). Pairing beverages is the next step, but that's a separate post (in the meantime, try this guide from MBA Wine Club).

Our favorite combinations from the day:
+ Muesli baguette, the aged goat cheese, and honey
+ Chamblie, pear, and honey
+ Chamblie and marmalade
+ Aged goat cheese and avocado

The gouda was a bit rubbery, so we saved most of it to be baked into the purple potatoes and Gala apples later in the evening. My beverage of choice, for those who are curious, was a blend of bourbon and iced citrus green tea, which sounds pretty awful but tasted quite lovely, and worked surprisingly well with the cheese. Cheese is the perfect snack! And also, I find, an ideal dessert. Go eat cheese.

Sunday, May 4

Kitchen: The Eggbeater

After experiencing Lucy's post featuring her new-old eggbeater, and then stumbling across a blog named Eggbeater, it occurred to me that I ought to post about my own ardent feelings toward the humble, under-appreciated, and dare I say endangered eggbeater.

My main culinary influence, before I became addicted to Food & WIne magazine, was my grandmother. Growing up I would spend summers and holidays at her house, balancing my time between tormenting the cats, banging on the piano, and loitering in the kitchen. She was an excellent cook, but she really excelled as a baker -- odd, in retrospect, that this didn't rub off on me, as these days I tend to view baking as a chore rather than a delight. There were always cookies in the house, and summer brought berry pies, shortcakes, and sweet quickbreads. In the winter, for the holidays, we had brownies, bourbon balls, fruitcake, and pies galore. At these times my job, besides assiduously studying her pie crust technique (as the sole female progeny and therefore custodian of the beloved tradition) was to take care of the whipped cream.

There was no store bought whipped cream in our home. Did it even exist back then? I remember thinking spray cans of whipping cream and frozen tubs of Cool Whip were bizarre and unnatural when I first encountered them (I still think this, although I would be lying if I claimed I have never indulged in either or both, possibly without a baked good as a vehicle). When it was time to dress the pumpkin pie or strawberry shortcake, I would empty the waiting pint of whipping cream into the square white Corning Ware bowl with liquid measurements traced in faded blue along the inside. Add two tablespoons of confectioner's sugar and a drizzle of real vanilla extract; retrieve the eggbeater from the second drawer on the right of the stove. Churn until the liquid transforms, magically, into a sweetly fluffy cloud that holds soft yet solid peaks when the eggbeater is gently pulled out. Resist eating with fingers straight from the bowl; that comes later tonight when the grown-ups go to bed (and yes, whipped cream was a major culprit in my early compulsion to sneak food, and probably a factor in my eventual lactose-intolerance -- but I don't hold any resentment for that). Cover leftovers with plastic wrap and re-whip before re-serving -- assuming there are leftovers.

No one seems to use eggbeaters any more. Perhaps they've gone out of style with the influx of aforementioned spray cans and frozen "whipped topping" substitutes. Some of us, perhaps after overindulging as children, are even unfortunate enough to identify as lactose-intolerant, and are thereby wise to avoid dairy delights, whipped or otherwise. And I suppose those that do take the time to execute authentic whipped cream can use their posh Kitchen Aid blenders or simple hand mixers. But I maintain, it's not the same.

If you're looking for a non-dairy whipped cream, try Go Dairy Free's tofu-based imitation, or Ricki's soy-free version. I've also heard you can use sweetened coconut milk in a whipped cream charger...but I maintain -- it's not the same.

NB: Yes, I did actually write what I thought was a complete post without mentioning that eggbeaters can, in fact, be used to "beat" "eggs". But you probably figured that out yourself.

Friday, May 2

The Route

So I am moving to San Francisco. And I am driving. In fact, I'm driving this beauty (for a kind gentlemen I found via Craigslist) and taking three weeks to do it.

See our route here.

We're hitting Niagara Falls for, apparently, concrete and tourists (and the Maid of the Mists); Toronto, for cheese galore and Nimoy; Pittsburgh, for...steel factories?; the New River Gorge in West Virginia, for rafting and blue people; Nashville, Dollywood, and Memphis, for a whole lot of country music and a little Bikram yoga (and a good friend who likes both those things); Denton, TX, for another friend and whatever she wants to show us (which we hope includes rattlesnake farms); Carlsbad Caverns and Santa Fe, NM, for desert culture; various national parks (Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Yosemite), for Perrin's first national-park-camping-adventures; San Jose, CA, for family and possibly a bat mitzvah; and finally, Berkeley, CA, for our temporary resting place before starting the AIDS Lifecycle .


Gastronomic goals:
+ Resist blowing half the trip budget on cheese at Kensington Market
+ Find and consume unusual eggs (ostrich, please)
+ Eat something appropriately tacky in Dollywood
+ Enjoy bourbon balls, and bourbon, in Tennessee and/or Kentucky
+ Sample genuine Tex-Mex
(including but not limited to cornbread, fake burritos, and odd Mexican-themed casseroles)
+ Successfully prepare and consume campfire food
(NB: more than just beer and s'mores...but those things should be involved)
+ Stop at trashy roadside diners; eat deliciously greasy road food; possibly befriend truckers
+ Drink Californian wine in California and feel like I'm finally home.


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