Any day now, otherwise sensible New Englanders and Canadians will leave their cozy hearths and head into frigid woods to celebrate in heatless shacks. They’ll serve up dumplings, crêpes, eggs, and baked beans, and lick hardened snow from sticks. Spring is imminent, and its maiden harbinger will infuse each mouthful. The maples are stirring. Syrup season has begun.
People have honored this tradition for centuries, though primitive sugarhouse production has, for the most part, been replaced by commercial—and heated—facilities. Today, most maple sap is extracted by plastic tubing, not reeds; transported for processing in tanker trucks, not horse-drawn sleighs; and is boiled down into syrup in evaporator pans, not iron kettles. Most of it—the best of it, aficionados insist—comes from Quebec, where the freeze/thaw conditions crucial to sap quality are optimum. This month, the first pale, delicate, nectar-like syrup of the early season makes its annual debut, labeled “No. 1 Extra Light” in Canada, “Fancy” in Vermont (the world’s second largest producer), and “Grade A Light” in the rest of the U.S.
Too subtle for cooking, early season maple syrup is ideal as a topping or flavoring. Pleasantville chef Philip McGrath of Iron Horse Grill (20 Wheeler Ave 914-741-0717) features it on his early spring menu drizzled atop seared foie gras accompanied by rhubarb compote. “Its delicate flavor comes through, and its sweetness balances the foie gras’ richness and the rhubarb’s bitterness,” he says. “Early-season syrup is akin to first cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil: you want to taste it, not mask its flavor.” Its subtlety doesn’t hold up in vinaigrettes, sauces, or ice cream, he found, but does wonders sprinkled over his bread pudding.
Or pancakes or sweet potatoes or hot toddies…the options are as sweet and seductive as spring itself.
accompaniment to early season maple syrup-topped meat
Courtesy of Philip McGrath
1 qt rhubarb, diced medium, peeled if stringy
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup orange juice, preferably fresh
½ tsp grated fresh ginger
½ tsp grated lemon zest
2 whole pieces star anise
¼ tsp each salt and coarse fresh-ground black pepper
Additional salt and pepper, to taste
Combine ingredients in large saucepan and cook over low heat until rhubarb is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool, remove star anise, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve alongside seared foie gras, poultry breast, or grilled or roasted pork drizzled with early-season maple syrup.