Growing up in northeastern Canada, maple syrup — the authentic, really good stuff — practically coursed through my veins. We would not only drench pancakes, waffles and French toast in the liquid gold, but drizzle it on savory dishes as well.
But even more fun than eating the blissful treat was helping farmers in Quebec drill and tap big ol' red, black and sugar maple trees to extract the sap throughout the late winter and early spring months during school field trips.
A group of kids would hold a wooden bucket under a spigot, steadying the receptacle until brimming with the amber-tinted fluid. The watery sap would then be boiled to a thick, dense consistency, and funneled into shapely glass bottles, which were given to each of us as a souvenir to take home.
We treasured the gift, not even knowing the rich store of nutrients it contained. Mighty maple syrup is an antioxidant powerhouse (comparable to the class of superfoods, including berries, green tea and red wine) loaded with blood, bone, heart, prostate and immune-boosting minerals (iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese) fluid balancing potassium, and a slew of vitamins, such as, riboflavin to tame migraines and niacin for heart health.
This low-cal natural sweetener (17 calories per teaspoon), comprising the complex sugar sucrose is a healthier alternative to simple, refined sugars heralding the fall season with an oomph of full-bodied flavor, color and texture to dial up assorted dishes and drinks.
• Whip up some autumn cheer with a splash of pure Canadian, Vermont or Maine maple syrup in an Old Fashioned, Maple Fizz, Bourbon Twist or Mapletini.
• Warm the cockles of your heart with a maple pecan latte, maple chai tea or hot maple cider. Or kick off the day with a refreshing maple vanilla bean smoothie.
Now for the food part
• Breakfast is a no-brainer — drizzle on granola, oatmeal, Greek yogurt, egg scramble and biscuits, quick breads, scones or over a pan of sizzling bacon or sausages.
• For lunches and dinners, concoct a candied maple walnut vinaigrette for assorted salads or a robust marinade for grilled salmon, chicken, shrimp or scallops, pulled pork, baked beans, roasted roots or a sweet potato pecan bake (recipe at right).
• And for your just desserts, ice cream sundaes, crème brulees and cakes of all manners beckon to be kissed by the lively syrup.
To avoid confusion for consumers, the International Maple Syrup Institute has revamped the grading system, which has been accepted internationally throughout the industry. Grade B has been eliminated, leaving Grade A as the sole survivor with varying sub categories. All maple syrup has the same density and maple sugar content (66.9 percent), but only differs in terms of flavor and color ranging from a pale golden hue to a rich, robust brown.
• Grade A: Golden Color and Delicate Taste is the first syrup of the sugaring season, with a mild appearance and personality that complements traditional dishes, especially pancakes and waffles without overpowering them.
• Grade A: Amber Color and Rich Flavor, a mid-season syrup is the chef's grade of choice. Like Goldilocks' porridge it's the perfect hue and taste for baking and enlivening cocktails.
• Grade A: Dark Color and Robust Flavor has a full-bodied taste and appearance, making it a great brown sugar substitute for sauces, hearty cuts of meat and coffee drinks.
• Grade A: Very Dark Color and Strong Flavor reminiscent of molasses is tapped at the end of the season, and used commercially for the manufacture of confections.
Note: Unopened containers of maple syrup should be stored in cool spots, and once opened need refrigeration.
••• RECIPE: Sweet Potato Casserole with Maple Pecan Topping
• For the casserole: 4 pounds sweet potatoes; 1/3 cup pure maple syrup; 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, melted (optional for cholesterol-conscious); 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; 1/4 teaspoon each ground nutmeg and ginger.
• For the topping: 1/4 cup melted butter (optional for cholesterol-conscious); 1/3 cup brown sugar; 1 cup pecan pieces or halves.
• Method: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place sweet potatoes in their jackets on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Pierce with a fork and bake for about 45 minutes or until tender. In a large mixing bowl, scoop out flesh and blend with syrup, butter and spices until smooth. Transfer to an oven-safe casserole dish. Sprinkle nuts and brown sugar on top and pour melted butter evenly. Refrigerate until ready to bake in a moderate oven for 25 minutes or until bubbly and brown.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org