I'd Tap That!
The maple tree is so deeply rooted in Quebec and Ontario culture that we hold parties to celebrate its sweet gifts. It’s well-rooted in my life - past and present - too.
The sugaring off parties of my childhood were some of the best times and best eating of my life. Sitting at picnic tables, up to my knees in snow, staring down a steaming plate of sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, and pancakes, all cooked over an open fire, and all swimming in shockingly deep puddles of warm maple syrup. And of course, there was maple taffy on snow.
The air was crisp and clouds of primal-life-affirming wood smoke and steam billowed from fires and vats of simmering sap; the sun was bright, and chickadees darting from tree to tree, called out their feeeee-beeee love song.
Growing up in Hudson, Quebec, boiling the pure, ice-cold, lightly sweet sap into syrup was one of my favourite things to do with Father. Our property at the bottom of Oakland Avenue and Main Road was lined along one side with several lovely big sugar maples, and in late winter—just as soon as the warm sun hitting the dark-grey bark caused the sap to surge—we’d start collecting and boiling it down – but not before enjoying a few ice-cold sips of sap straight from the bucket. It was colder than cold, and thrilling. Just imagine if you lived in a time before cane sugar or sweet drinks from the shop, this would have been one of the most wonderful moments of every year.
Father and I would go from tree to tree, where first he’d auger a hole – sometimes two - into the tree. Then he’d gently tap in a spigot with a rubber mallet, so as not to damage the soft metal of the spigot. Next, he’d hang the bucket onto the spigot’s special hook, and finally clamp on the sloped lid. It only took a second or two before I would hear the first tunk, tunk, tunk, of sap hitting the bottom of the empty metal bucket.
The angled lids were designed to keep debris, rain and critters out of the buckets, but they were no match for the neighbourhood kids, who would drink themselves sick on the stuff. But there was always enough for us and the poachers. As the buckets filled, we would haul them in and pour the sap through a cheesecloth-lined sieve – catching the tiniest bits of bark and the odd insect – into a pot for boiling. And that’s when Mother’s nerves would snap. She wasn’t a fan of sticky walls. After a couple of seasons of putting her through maple-coated kitchen wall hell, Father moved the operation outside, with a hotplate on a very long extension cord. She was happier, but still driven mad when we stole her good silver forks to collect with a twirl the extra-thick maple syrup, laying chilled in the fresh snow.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to mature maples but have yet to tap them, I can only ask, what are you waiting for? Sugar maples yield one of the highest sugar contents and most generous sap flows, and that’s why they’re everyone’s favourite for tapping, but several other maples provide sap suitable for syrup making. All the maples listed here have sweet sap on tap: Acer saccharum–Hard, Rock or Sugar Maple; A. glabrum–Rocky Mountain Maple; A. macrophyllum–Bigleaf maple; A. negundo–Boxelder or Manitoba Maple.
And it’s not just syrup you can create with in the kitchen. Use the fresh, clear sap (in moderation) in drinks, and as a poaching liquid for fish or veggies. I’ve poached a piece of Arctic char in maple sap with tiny new potatoes that is to die for! The sweetness concentrates and penetrates the fish…oh my, my, my….do give this a try!
Riverside House Dressing
Or as it was known at my old restaurant, Riverside Café, “Housie”. The stuff was pretty popular; folks would come in with washed out bottles and jars to fill for home. The sweet creaminess of it is perfect with bitter greens, and the sweetness comes courtesy of plenty of maple syrup. This is the sort of dressing that can be used to dress hot foods just as well as salads, think: roasted veggies, fish, chicken, baked or boiled potatoes...it's pretty well good on anything!
3/4 cup (175 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (60 mL) fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1/4 cup (60 mL) balsamic vinegar
2 cloves minced or crushed garlic
1/4 cup (60 mL) maple syrup
1 tsp (5 mL) fine sea salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) white pepper
1/2 cup (125 mL) tahini and its oil; might need to warm slightly to blend
2 Tbsp (30 mL) zata’ar
1/2 tsp (2 mL) cumin
1 tsp (5 mL) sumac
a few good shakes of Tabasco
Add all ingredients to a bowl, and beat with a whisk until smooth and somewhat emulsified. Or blend in a blender, use an immersion blender (wand), or make it in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.
Taste for salt; adjust if needed. Easy!
Bottle up and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. It will separate, so just give it a good shake before using.
Roasted roots of any sort are delicious, especially in fall when meals call for coziness. Use any variety and combination of root veggies for this—domestic and wild – from American ground nut to wild yam, arrowhead, burdock, and lotus to the tiny northern rice root. Here I’ve roasted up a pile of arrowhead, lotus, and burdock root. And since many wild roots have some bitterness—the burdock in this case—I’ve drizzled with maple syrup before roasting. If you like it really sweet, serve with a finishing drizzle of maple or for a bit of bitterness, birch syrup.
2 large lotus roots, peeled, sliced
12 arrowhead root, trimmed
4 - 5 burdock roots, peeled, chopped and quartered
2 Tbsp (30 mL) olive or other favourite oil
2 - 3 Tbsp (30 - 45 mL) maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F (190C)
Wash and prepare roots; drain.
Add oil to roasting pan large enough to accommodate the roots without them overlapping too much.
Season with salt and pepper; drizzle with maple syrup and toss in the pan.
Roast, uncovered, for about 1 hour or until tender-crisp and golden. Reach inside once or twice to shake the pan and move things around a bit.
If you’ve yet to plant a maple or two or six!...again, I ask you, what are you waiting for? If you're in zones 4 to 8, and have fertile, moist, well-draining soil, give a new tree lots of room to grow in full sun to part shade. It needs to be a good 60 feet (18 m) away from foundations, sewage or drainage pipes and septic systems because of strong, extensive roots. Also, avoid planting near busy roads, since salt and pollution are hard on maples. If it thrives, it can reach impressive heights: up to 70 ft/20 m with a spread of up to 40 ft/15 m.
Not a maple in sight? Birch, some of the Juglans nut family, and even sycamore trees are also coursing with sweet water in the early spring. Beginner tapping kits are available from online shops or in country hardware stores, and instructional videos are all over the internet. It’s fun and easy: drill hole, tap in spigot, hang bucket, wait. And, of course, you can’t tap a tree trunk with less than an 8-inch (20-cm) diameter.