Maple Syrup, the New Sugar?

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January 5th, 2010 Original Article

While we think of honey as both a stand-alone sweetener and an essential ingredient in things like marinades, salad dressings and glazes, we don’t view a similar sugary liquid, maple syrup, in the same way at all. Instead the treat from trees is relegated primarily to being sopped up by the breakfast trifecta of pancakes, waffles and French toast.

Yummy, but limited.

Yesterday’s news, says Chef Kathleen Daelemans. “Forget pancake and think ‘pan-sear.’ Maple syrup goes way beyond just sweet. Once you get it, you’ll start thinking of it in the savory category as well as the sweet.” Affiliated with the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers and its 8600 businesses, Daelemans, star of “Cooking Thin” for three seasons on The Food Network and author of “Cooking Thin and Loving Food”, is in love with maple syrup. Chefs always enjoy using ordinary ingredients in unexpected ways to create extraordinary things. For Daelemans, that everyday thing is maple syrup.

Daelemans thinks that “it’s much more versatile than people expect and has a depth of flavor that you want to incorporate into your cooking.” Whether it’s the economy, wanting to take responsibility for our own health, or simply culinary curiosity, more people today are cooking at home.

We all share the desire to eat healthy, says Daelemans, who knows from eating healthy. At the age of 22 she became the spa chef at a Hawaiian resort, all 205 pounds of her. Eating her own award-winning food she lost a staggering 75 pounds, and has kept it off ever since. “It’s easy to eat healthy when what you eat tastes great,” explains Daelemans. “What sounds better: Poached Fish with Steamed Vegetables or Pan-Seared Salmon with a Maple Glaze with Green Beans with Parmesan and Lemon?” It’s easy, she says, and quick. Salt and pepper the salmon, pan-sear it with two teaspoons of olive oil in a good quality, non-stick pan with a heavy bottom. Cook skin side up over medium heat for five minutes. Turn over, cook a few more minutes. Remove fish. Add 1/4 cup of chicken stock, the juice of half an orange (a few tablespoons) and one tablespoon of pure maple syrup. Bring to a boil, reduce and simmer until thickened. Turn off heat and add fresh thyme, parsley or any herb you choose. Pour over fish. Toss the steamed green beans with lemon, freshly grated Parmesan, and a little olive oil and you’re done.

Eating well-flavored food, Daelemans says, makes you less likely to want dessert. “If there’s a lack of flavor in your dinner, you automatically start looking forward to dessert, thinking ‘My dinner was terrible, I deserve dessert.’” That’s when you run into problems. “We all have an emotional need for flavor and nutrition and when we satisfy that need, we generally eat better.”

Daelemans hails from a family of artists, but she didn’t share their talents and envied their creative outlets until she found hers in food. Her mom read cookbooks like novels and was an adventurous, inventive cook who rarely cooked the same thing twice. “I think my Dad had only a handful of repeat meals,” she remembers. “Mom always made something different.”

Her first job, in the kitchen of the Ahwahnee Hotel, the resort lodge and national historic landmark in Yosemite National Park, was to earn money for photography school. There, she discovered Ahwahnee’s “Chefs’ Holidays”, where acclaimed visiting chefs created special menus. Only two cooks were chosen to work with them, she explains. That became her goal. It took two years to get there, but once she did, she worked with such chefs as Ken Frank, Larry Forgione, Marcel Desaulnier and Joyce Goldstein.

Syrup’s rich, caramel-like, clean flavor goes a long way. Real maple syrup, that is. Some brands have negligible amounts of maple syrup, if any at all. You want the real stuff, the kind that’s made from the sap of maple trees that thrive in cold climates. When the sap thaws in the early spring and begins rising, syrup producers drill a hole and insert a “tap” allowing the sap to trickle out into a bucket. It’s then boiled down. Way down. “It takes 10.5 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup,” explains Daelemans.

While Vermont conjures images of snowy maples trees festooned with buckets, Quebec, Canada produces a staggering 80% of the world’s maple syrup supply. And that’s from a brief harvest season of just 12 to 20 days. Quebec actually maintains a “strategic maple syrup reserve” which is what allowed it to export 67.7 million pounds of maple syrup in 2007 when it only produced 67.6 million pounds. The United States is the only other major producer and we are, proudly, the leading consumer.

Maple syrup is graded by color and flavor. There’s Grade A with three sub-divisions, light amber, medium amber and dark amber and Grade B. People assume the grading system indicates quality, she says. It doesn’t. The colors reflect how early in the season a tree was tapped, with the lighter colors from trees that were tapped first. Lighter syrups have a delicate flavor, darker ones, a richer flavor. Taste and choose what you like. Grade B is best for barbecues and marinades, things that call for a lot of flavor.

Daelemans points out that maple syrup has fewer calories than honey or corn syrup and zero additives. One-quarter cup has as many antioxidants as one serving of broccoli (paging George H.W. Bush), 100% of your daily value of manganese – good for energy production and bone formation – 24% of riboflavin (B2), and traces of potassium and zinc. She says to use it in glazes, rubs, barbecue sauces, or in any type of pan sauce from ones with garlic, chili flakes and shallots to ones with balsamic vinegar or white wine bases. Or drizzle it on sweet potatoes, carrots or squash, sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper and roast. Of course, you can always be cliché and make maple butter, sugar, taffy or candy.

The whole point about cooking is to create and enhance flavor. “When you throw your ingredients together they should come together like a great orchestra. Maple syrup works well in so many things. It’s smooth, complex, with a clean finish,” says Daelemans. Oh, and it’s sweet and tastes really good on pancakes and waffles, too.

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