Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Maple Weekend, Now with Pictures!

We celebrated the arrival of spring in Lake Snowbegone by heading to the woods for the running of the sap. Yep, it was Maple Weekend up here last week, and the tiny towns were jumpin', what with all the pancake breakfasts and the steaming evaporators and the smiley lady from the Cornell Cooperative Extension handing out little paper cups of maple-walnut candy and stapled-together handouts full of recipes for maple-glazed sweet potatoes and maple-nut pancakes.

There was still soft snow under the sugar maples, but the temperature had poked up just enough over the past few days to start the sap running. Not by much, though; at Yancey's, they'd only started tapping the day before, and there wasn't enough sap yet to keep up with the syrup demands. But I digress.

We started out at the Golden Maple Shanty, where steam billowing out of the chimney did give the whole scene a nice IHOP smell. Inside, a big stainless-steel, oil-fired evaporator was bubbling busily, the hot sap flowing in channels labelled with digital temperature readouts. Talking to the proprietor, I found out that this machine was still a bit of a newcomer to the shanty. "I boiled sap over wood fires for 40 years," he said, then admitted the new oil-fired machines were trickier; they needed a continual flow of sap to keep from overheating, and you had to keep a close eye on the readouts, rather than watching the size of the bubbles on the roiling sap or gauging the heat of the fire. The room was cheerfully crowded, with not much difference between the look of the maple-makers and those come to buy their wares.

On a tip from the Cornell lady, we followed the directions on the Maple Weekend brochure through the woods out to Yancy's. On the way, we saw "Maple Syrup for Sale" signs tacked up in front of numerous farmhouses; once we got into the woods, plastic buckets once used for spackle and plaster were getting another go-round as sap collectors. Any house with a few trees around it was engaging in a little sugar-making.

Yancey's sugarbush, owned by the same family for over 150 years, is spread out over several hundred acres of old maples. The sugarhouse is still a large wooden shack, stacked with logs from floor to ceiling for firing up the long wood-fired evaporators.

Sap comes to the sugarhouse in a wagon hauled by a team of draft horses, to be poured down a chute into a boxy wooden storage tank that can take some 1500 gallons.

Warm near the fire, cold near the open doors, awash in billows of steam and lit only by the pale, snow-reflected afternoon light outside, this was syrup making mostly unchanged as it had been in New England for generations on end.

As one of the Yancey boys heaved more logs into the firebox, another scooped up boiling sap with a long-handled flat shovel. As with testing jelly, the syrup is done when it "sheets" from the edge of the scoop, hanging in a clear, glassy ridge from the metal edge. A hydrometer helps too, bobbing in a tube of boiling syrup to measure its density and decide when the sap's cooked down enough to be judged quality syrup.

The only thing not cooperating with the old-time vision were the trees themselves. The still-chilly days meant the sap was barely rising. Outside the door, metal buckets hung from the surrounding trees, each suspended beneath a thumb-sized spigot. I held the tip of my finger under the tap as a clear drop slowly swelled and fell. The taste was something more than clear water, a hint of wild tang, a bosky woodsiness.

But tang or not, the trees were still mostly sleeping, and with it taking around 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, the line to fill metal jugs over at the hot syrup vat was long and barely moving. So we took our little pint jug and went back to town to get educated at the Maple Museum. The American (and Canadian, as the nice front-desk lady was careful to point out) Maple Museum tells the story of New England sugaring, with an emphasis on New York State. There's a maple hall of fame, full of photographs and plaques honoring achievement in the maple industry. There's a room dedicated to old logging and ice-cutting gear,with a huge proto-snowmobile and giant cast-iron prongs for lifting blocks of ice. There are bark baskets used for sap collection by local Oswego tribe members, and a sternly worded nutritional and economic-welfare comparision between real syrup and fake maple-flavored "table syrup", with an emphasis on how buying real syrup supports local family-run industry.

And although we now think of maple syrup as the main maple product, grainy tan blocks of solid maple sugar--which provided a much better work-to-money ratio for the sugar producer--used to make up the bulk of a sugarbush's output. In The Maple Sugar Book, Helen and Scott Nearing's entertaining little tome about their time working a small sugarbush in the 1930s and 40s, the Nearings point out the role maple sugar played in fighting the slave trade. In the mid-1800s, at the height of the abolitionist movement, many New England thinkers and activists promoted maple sugar as a cruelty-free alternative to cane sugar, which they saw as tainted by the suffering of the slaves used to produce it on the sugarcane plantations in the American South and in the West Indies. English abolitionists begged their countrymen to start planting maple trees, so as to have a source of sugar that could be cultivated by free men on native soil.

Back at Yancey's, we finally got our jug filled and headed home. The next morning: buckwheat pancakes with lots of syrup!

Buckwheat Pancakes

1/3 cup buckwheat flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/3 whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 TB maple syrup
a few shakes of cinnamon (opt)
1 egg
3/4 cup milk, or as needed
2 TB melted butter
chopped toasted nuts or chopped apples or pears, or berries
Maple syrup, warmed

Lightly grease a wide frying pan or griddle. Heat over medium heat. Stir or sift dry ingredients together. Beat egg, milk, and butter in a cup, then stir in gently. Add more milk as needed for a proper batter consistency; thick batter will give thicker, fluffier cakes; thin batter makes thinner, more delicate cakes. Add chopped nuts or fruit, as desired. Pour onto hot griddle and bake over medium-low heat until browned and small bubbles are popping on top side of cake. Flip and cook until browned. Serve with plenty of warm syrup

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sunshine and Apple Fritters

Happy Spring! Up here in Lake Snowbegone, it was 7 degrees at 6 am when K. left the house. Some spring morning...

I was happily cuddled up under the covers with a bowl of oatmeal and a hot cup of coffee when she came back at 7:30am to resume the sleep that was so rudely truncated by the alarm some two hours before.

But there are red-and-yellow tulips in the blue marble vase on the kitchen table and salmon and asparagus in the fridge, so that's a couple of sure-fire signs of spring, at least. Two loaves of whole wheat/cornmeal bread are in the oven, too, courtesy of a fifty-cent copy of Beard on Bread that I picked up at the library's Book and Cookie Sale a couple of weeks ago, along with a mixed dozen of very tasty homemade sweets--molasses cookies, chocolate-chocolate chip, toll house, lemon shortbread, snickerdoodles, a tiny pecan tart. There were chocolate-chip cookies dyed green, too, but that was too freaky for me, even with St. Patrick's Day around the corner.

Just last week, it was really looking like spring. The thermometer was up, the snow was receding, pink Peeps and green asparagus were on display. My old San Fran pal Queen Christina (aka the Red Meat Ranger, for all you old-school Bay Guardian fans) called to say that she was a mere 8 hours south, brushing up on her Sanskrit down the shore in pretty Spring Lake, NJ. Well, that's all the invitation I needed. With a couple pairs of socks, a toothbrush, and the little half-knitted toddler hat that I've trying to finish for the past 8 months stuffed into my backpack, I jumped on a bus to NYC and then a train to Jersey.

Robins were strutting across the lawns of the big Victorians with their wrap-around porches, and whorls of tulip leaves were prodding up through the black earth. We headed towards the beach and then met our downfall in Linger. Now, when it comes to lingerie, QC stands firmly in the matching-set camp, while my quest leans more towards something--anything!-- fabulous sans underwire, the invention of the devil. And after many, many try-ons and entertaining chat with Robin, the owner, we both found scanties to make ourselves look gorgeous.

Later, we drove to Edison with Goda, one of QC's classmates, and several of the other students. This town has become the Jackson Heights of central Jersey. The strip malls are packed with subcontinental supermarkets, restaurants, DVD and music shops, and jewelry and sari stores. With Goda as our guide, we cruised through a Pathmark-sized store stocked with huge bags of rice, boxes of ground pomegranate powder, dozens of spicy-salty-sweet snacks, and wonderful produce, from thumb-sized fresh turmeric rhizomes and green mangoes to eggplants the size of marbles, stalks of fresh sugarcane, and four kinds of fresh ginger. Having worked up an appetite, we slid into a booth at the busy Saravanaa Bhavan for fluffy idli in sambar and arm-long dosas. (More details to follow).

The next morning, I found myself rooting through the rented-house cabinets for something to bake. But while there was sugar, steak sauce and many, many batteries, there was no flour to be had. But there was a half-used box of Cafe du Monde beignet mix, the sort of thing that, like a Nora Roberts novel, can linger for years in a summer house cabinet. Next to the beignet mix, just enough vegetable oil for deep-frying. Voila! Beignets for the masses! As I was pouring water in the mix, QC pulled a couple of apples out of the fridge. Could we add these to the beignets, she wondered. (Did I mention how healthy she is these days? All vegetarian and stuff, corned beef hash--more on this later--notwithstanding.)

Well, no. We couldn't put apples into the beignets, but we could put the beignets around the apples, by turning the beignet dough into fritter batter. What a hit! The plain beignets were cute but rather spongy and bland, especially once the fresh-fried heat had faded. But the apple fritters were fantastic, and so easy.

How to do this, should you have your own half-used box of beignet mix:

Throw the mix (about a cup's worth) into a big bowl. Add a tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 tsp of cinnamon (more or less to taste). Add enough water to make a very gloppy batter. Core apple (no need to peel) and divide into wedges, approx. 3/4" thick. Over medium heat, heat about 2" inches of vegetable oil in a medium-sized saucepan, until a bit of batter sizzles when dropped in, sinking to the bottom and then rising quickly. Line a plate with several layers of paper towels for draining the finished fritters. In a shallow bowl, stir 1/2 cup of granulated sugar with cinnamon to taste.

Now, dip the apple slices into the batter. Some of the batter will coat the apple, some will run off in a gloppy mess. Don't stress! Just try to keep a reasonable amount of batter on the apple. Drop each slice into the oil after dipping. With a slotted spoon, flip the slices over once they are golden on one side. Scoop out as soon as they are golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels, then quickly roll through the cinnamon sugar (the residual oil on the outside will help the cinnamon sugar to stick). Put on a plate and continue frying until you have as many fritters as you can eat. If the oil gets too hot and the fritters start scorching, turn it off for a couple minutes, then reheat and continue. Use the fan/vent over your stove if you have one, so your house doesn't smell like a Krispy Kreme for hours afterwards.

A big hit with any Sanskritini you might find in your kitchen at 8AM!

To Come: A Huge Storm Arrives! QC teaches PQ How to Crochet. We Find Sublime Corned Beef in Belmar, Then Suffer the Slings and Arrows of the Mean Yarn Lady. All this, and Mango Ginger Lassis, Too!

But in case you were wondering just what this whole equinox thing is, anyway, it's all explained in this poetic little science article. As Natalie Angier writes about this year's March-20-or-March-21 confusion,

"Whatever the date, go on and celebrate, for the vernal equinox is a momentous poem among moments, overspilling its borders like the swelling of sunlight it heralds."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chicken Soup for Spring

Life is better up here today. It's warm, it's raining, and thus all the decrepit piles of dirty snow are finally slinking away, down into the mud where they belong. And, the nice DSL people finally showed up, so yes, I can write and post from home now. It's the small things...

So, on the cooking front, this week's excitement was the re-fashioning of two styrofoam boxes of leftover Jamacian curried chicken into a swell variation on mulligatawny. Out along the highway, one of K's Army buds had recently taken over a small soul-food and Caribbean restaurant, and we went on their opening night. As their first customers, we got not only massively heaped portions but the same thing again to take home with us. So double-wides of curried chicken sat in our fridge all weekend, until K. suggested turning them into soup. I mulled this over for a while, and what we ended up with was a thick orange potage, filled out with a handful of red lentils cooked to slush and cubes of sweet potato, and sparked up with a whole lot of fresh minced ginger--a kind of island-influenced version of mulligawny, itself a curry-spiked lentil soup invented by Indian household cooks during the Raj for their Anglo employers.

This was good stuff, and you could make it yourself even without Caribbean-restaurant leftovers. Just add some curry powder to the veg as they're sauteed, and either leave out the chicken altogether, or shred it in at the end.

Caribbean Chicken Turned into Mulligatawny

Amounts are approximate; fiddle around depending on what you've got in the house and how much soup you want at the end of the day.

1 TB olive or vegetable oil
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 or 2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
2 or 3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, ditto
1 to 2 tsp curry powder, or to taste (if not using already curried chicken)
2 to 3 inches of peeled fresh gingerroot, finely chopped or grated
2-3 TB tomato paste (you could also diced canned or fresh tomatoes, maybe half a cup or so)
2 to 3 cups chicken broth
1 cup red lentils (because the color matches the soup, and also because the red ones fall apart into sludge better than the green or brown ones)
1 large sweet potato, diced
2 to 3 cups shredded leftover cooked chicken (optional)
1/4 cup half and half (optional)
lime wedges and chopped cilantro for garnish, if desired

Saute onions, celery, carrot, and garlic in oil until onions are translucent and veg are starting to brown lightly. Add curry powder, if using, ginger, and tomato paste. Saute, stirring frequently, for a couple minutes. Add lentils, broth, and potato. Add water as necessary to bring it to a soupy consistency (the lentils will absorb some, so use a bit more water than you think). Bring to a gentle simmer, stir, then partially cover and leave on a very low heat for at least an hour. Stir occasionally.

After an hour, check and see how soft the lentils are. You want them totally sludgy and falling apart, which may take another 30 minutes or so. When you like the consistency and it tastes all nice and blended, add the chicken and simmer for another five minutes. Pour the half-and-half into a cup and spoon in some hot broth to temper it. Keep stirring in hot broth until you've filled up the cup. Turn off the heat and pour in the cream, stirring gently.

Sprinkle each bowl with chopped cilantro and serve with lime wedges on the side.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Better than me

It's 1 degree out there ('feels like -14F!' says, and hey, thanks, I really feel better now) and I have bubkes to write about, maybe because California's still a month away (and because I know they have tangelos and blood oranges and soon asparagus and artichokes there, while we have crappy shriveled lettuce and Fruity Pebbles up here in freezing snowland). I could go on about how it's Triangular Food Week chez PQ (hamentaschen! spanikopita!) but the muse has decamped to someplace less bone-chilling for the moment. So read someone funnier than me here. I, too, stand squarely behind the restorative value of food paid for by other people-- the secret reason for all those cheerful years as a restaurant critic!

Plus, this part just killed me.

At brunch, Brooke and I took full advantage of the wealth of drugs being offered us in the form of chocolate croissants, Bloody Marys, French toast, all things “benedict,” and, surprisingly to me, salmon. Brooke is Jewish, and of the many differences we share (her killing my savior, etc.) the one that I was having the most trouble with was eating fish for breakfast. I was taught that fish were strictly dinner food. Maybe on the weekends you could eat fish sticks for lunch, but by and large if it came from the ocean you couldn’t partake until after 6:00. I imagine if my family was ever stranded on a desert island and my father caught a fish to cook for lunch my mother would suggest maybe coconut instead. Or perhaps a turkey sandwich, because I also don’t imagine my mom understanding how desert islands work. But never fish.

I haven't yet gotten around to presenting K. with the full-on Jewish breakfast experience (lox! coleslaw! kippered salmon! bialys! green tomato pickles!) although I have shamelessly angled for baking-Jew points by making garlic and poppy-seed bagels at home. But next time we're in Brooklyn, a trip to Russ & Daughters is on the list. Now if only someone else would pay for it...

Monday, March 05, 2007

missing you

Much to report, since, yeah, the PQ must of been having way too fun to post for, what, the past 2 weeks? Now that we're back up in the little upstate NY town that K. has rightly described as "the mouth of hell where the snow comes out", there should be plenty of time for recaps of the excellent cooking at Chestnut and 360, recipes for the mocha-whiskey cake and cider-braised pork that we fed to K's art school nevvie, and some culture-clapping for Julie Taymore's Magic Flute at the Met and MTT's Shostakovitch symphony at Carnegie Hall.

But right now, well, tut, tut, it looks like snow, so I'm going to leave the library (my sole source of Internet connection) and get home to make spanikopita and Greek salad before it dumps. More to follow!