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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sugaring Off! What To Do With... Maple Syrup

Last Spring, we spent Easter in Montreal with my in-laws. It was my first opportunity to experience a rich Quebec tradition: a visit to the cabane au sucre (literally means: sugar cabin). This activity is also known as, “Sugaring Off.” It is that glorious time of year when the sun shines a little bit longer each day, the snow starts to melt away and the farmers tap their maple trees to siphon off that glorious sap that is transformed into the wonderfully sweet amber maple syrup.

Be warned, the point of cabane au sucre is to eat. A LOT. And sometimes, the cabane is enlivened with a certain amount of alcohol, and local music too. My advice to you: Wear loose elastic waistband pants, pace yourself then dive right in. The cabane is a multi-course extravaganza showcasing two of Quebec's agricultural darlings: pork and maple syrup.

Our cabane was located on a picturesque farm set along rolling hills blanketed by thick white snow in rural Quebec. The cabane itself is a large hall with long communal tables. It was still early in the day but there is a buzz in the room with chattering patrons, clanging dishes and a small army of cooks banging out one dish after another.

We purchased our tickets, as soon as we sat down at our table, the parade of food began. Our meal kicked off with a large bowl of thick pea soup. It was dark pea green flecked with yellow lentils in a rich, flavourful broth. I was just about to reach for a second bowl when my husband (my fiance at the time) shook his head and told me pace myself. A large greasy platter filled with assorted ham, and sausages with little dinner rolls showed up at our table next. I sat out this round. (I don’t eat pork - it’s a long story but involves childhood “incident.”) Then came a plate of starchy white potatoes to soak up the eggs stirred in warmed syrup. (Yes, you read that correctly... eggs cooked in syrup.) Now, that may sound unappetizing, and in fact, my husband didn’t have a taste for it. But I found it unique, interesting and different: strands of eggs whisked through thick boiling maple syrup. It's not for everyone, but I like eggs and I like maple syrup so it worked for me. Of course, no cabane au sucre breakfast would be complete without baked beans simmered in maple syrup. They were tender and sweet but not cloying. Last but not least, we capped the meal off with the grand marshal of the food parade, dessert. First, a grand-pere (literally means grandfather), a deep fried sweetened dough similar to a funnel cake doused with glorious maple syrup. Then last but not least, the most classic of Quebec desserts: the fabulous yet simple tarte au sucre. Think pecan pie or butter tart without the pecans or the raisins. It's a smooth and creamy, reminscent of a soft fudge with a crisp, shattering crust. I groaned my way through the final bites, but man, it was good. Decadent but good.

I left the sugar shack with a full belly, wishing I had worn pants with an elastic waistband. But there was one thing left to do... maple taffy. As we left the cabane, one of the farm hands had just filled a large wooden tray with pristine white snow. He poured maple syrup into the pristine white snow and all the kids (including the kids at heart) lined up to wrap the hardening syrup around a Popsicle stick and to enjoy maple syrup one last time.

While a tour around the property is a must, if you're with children, they will likely insist a sleigh ride on the farm's horses...

I didn't need to "sugar off" to develop an appreciation for the beauty of maple syrup. It has a delicious and deep flavour that I like to use in place of brown sugar. While it is a natural pairing for pancakes, I think maple syrup is far more versatile than that.

I have added maple syrup to roast squash (it pairs so nicely) when I make this squash and pumpkin bisque. I also add a tablespoon or more... when I make breakfast turkey patties. It tastes fabulous as the sweetener to home-made granola (in place of honey or brown sugar) and I have even heard of it as a replacement for sugar in coffee. (um, different)

My husband has been in charge of weekday dinners lately and he has found a way to make use of maple syrup and sweet potatoes. This is recipe is a welcome departure from the usual starches - rice, potatoes, pasta....

Maple Roasted Sweet Potatoes

2.5lbs sweet potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)
1/4c maple syrup
3 tbsp vegetable oil

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Toss sweet potatoes, brown sugar and vegetable oil together. Tumble into an ovenproof dish. Roast for 25-30 minutes until edges are crisp and the sugar has caramelized.

*We visited Cabane Au Sucre Bernard Duquette just outside of Montreal.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Avocado and Hearts of Palm Salad

Thanks to everyone who made my scrambled eggs posting the most viewed photo on Tastespotting.com last week and I welcome new readers who found me through that post.

When people find out I have a food blog the first thing they ask is, "How do you have the time?" This question is almost always followed by, "How do you come up with recipes?" The answer to the first question is time management but some weeks are better than others. The answer to the second question is sometimes it is through a fortunate accident but most times, I am inspired by an ingredient, a technique or another recipe.

My plan for this week's post was inspired by a great chicken dish I tried several years ago. I spent the week developing this recipe: spice levels and the cooking technique. I wanted to make dish something that was easy, delicious and accessible. Most times, what I envision and what happens are the same thing. The problem was this week that wasn't the case. First, the spices weren't quite there (not exactly a disaster, but not good enough to post) so it has sent me back to the drawing board and second, we had a cooking accident. We grilled the chicken on the barbecue at the same as we did a duck breast. The duck breast with its thick fatty skin created a dark grey smoke that imparted an unappetizing carbon-tinged colour to the meat. Not exactly the result I had intended.

So instead I offer up this really simple salad that we ate with the chicken last night. This is such a simple thing to put together that calling it a recipe is somewhat misleading. You need recipes for souffles, and cheesecakes but for this little salad? No, it's pretty easy. Think of it as a list of ingredients.

If you plan to serve this on a particular day, remember to purchase the avocado several days in advance. I think the addition of orange segments might be really nice in this salad as well which I will try next time. This salad is a welcome departure from the usual leaf salads that people have come to expect.

Avocado & Hearts Of Palm Salad
Yields 2 large servings

1 ripe avocado (diced) (Click here for a refresher on cutting an avocado)
3 hearts of palm (1 can) - sliced into 1/2cm coins

1/3 c olive oil
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch dried oregano (if you have fresh, use that instead)
1 tbsp of finely chopped parsley

Whisk together and ingredients and set aside.

Toss avocado and hearts of palm together. Drizzle vinaigrette over top and serve.

Updated April 11, 2009: Thanks to a reader for pointing this out... I inadvertedly forgot to include that you should add salt & pepper to taste and a squeeze of lemon to finish.
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