It's sugar time in Minnesota, with maple sap flowing and being cooked down to delicious syrup around the region.
Just in time, there's a new book to celebrate maple syrup. Teresa Marrone, author of "Modern Maple," joins MPR News to talk about maple syrup culture in Minnesota.
Steven John: Last week, meteorologist Paul Huttne blogged about the "pancake effect," warm days and cool nights and how it was good news for maple producers, especially compared to last year's dismal season. What are you hearing about this year's maple harvest?
Teresa Marrone: Well, it's good in some places but quite spotty in others. The problem is just the opposite of last year, which was too warm. This year, it was too cold for a while. We had that late snow, which kept the ground frozen and the trees didn't really have a chance to start warming up. And then when it did get warm, it failed to get below freezing at night, which is required for the sap. So it's either been too cold, or too warm.
Steven John: And it's spotty?
Teresa Marrone: Yes, it's spotty. Some people are getting pretty good runs. I just talked with a friend this morning that taps. She's got 50 taps up in Forest Lake. They've boiled five gallons of finished syrup so far this year. Last year with the same number of taps they got less than a quart. So they're doing well. Other people are not doing so well.
Steven John: Walk us through the process of collecting maple sap and turning it into delicious syrup. Is it hard to do?
Teresa Marrone: No, it's real easy. And I do it in my front yard in south Minneapolis, which is kind of fun to try.
But basically you just need to drill a small hole in a tree. The tree has to be big enough to support that, but you drill a small hole, stick a little piece of pipe in and something to collect the sap. And basically, what looks like water -- which is the sap -- runs out of the tree. It really does look just like water; it has about 2 percent sugar. We boil that down. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. It's quite a lengthy process to boil it down.
Steven John: One would think that Minnesota-produced maple syrup would be a natural fit in the locavore food culture of using locally-produced and manufactured foods.
Teresa Marrone: Absolutely. We are learning that maple syrup, like many other foods, does have its own terroir. That it does have a very specific taste, depending on where it was made. It has to do with the minerals in the soil, the exact procedure used by the sugar makers.
Nobody's really sure why exactly it happens. They actually do have international competitions and several Minnesota producers have actually won these competitions. Even though we produce a very small amount of the maple syrup in the world, we have actually won some of those competitions, which is really exciting.
Steven John: Give us some examples of main dishes and side dishes that might surprise those of us who, up to now, have used maple syrup exclusively on our pancakes and waffles, or maybe a dessert or two.
Teresa Marrone: The desserts are not to be missed, but it's also really good in main dishes. It goes really well with pork. Of course it goes with bacon -- everything goes with bacon -- but I use it as a glaze in a baby back ribs dish. I use it on salmon to make a glaze or cooking baste. I use it in a lot of soups, like this roasted carrot-ginger soup and salads, and it's surprising what maple does to a salad. If you think of something like a wilted lettuce salad, use a little bit heartier green. I use escarole.
I mix it with a little bit of radishes. I cook up some bacon, toss in some maple syrup, a little bit of onion and toss that with the escarole. The smokiness is what you taste. It's slightly sweet, slightly smoky, and it's just fantastic.
Steven John: I love ribs, and your recipe for baby back ribs with maple glaze got my mouth watering just reading about it.
Teresa Marrone: You make kind of a rub that has some maple syrup in it, with a little thyme and some other seasonings. I like to rub that on the ribs and let them sit for a couple of hours. And then -- this is kind of a restaurant trick -- but I actually "steam-bake" them first in a little covered roaster. When they're extremely tender, I take them out, and then I make a glaze of maple syrup with butter, garlic and some other wonderful things, brush that on and then finish them on the grill, turning them and basting them continuously until they crisp up and get really "maple-y" and good.
Teresa Marrone will talk about her book "Modern Maple" at noon Saturday, April 13 at the Mill City Museum Baking Lab.