Appetites: Sweet yet surprising honey

Winter market
Honey for sale at at the winter farmers market in downtown St. Paul, March 1, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2014

It may be in a bear-shaped bottle on your counter or fresh from the comb — no matter how you take it, honey is a staple in most kitchens.

The golden liquid is traditionally a complement to teas, fruit and breakfasts cold and hot. But Sue Doeden, author of "Homemade with Honey," uses it as a secret ingredient to add a new dimension to savory dishes as well.

"It can take something that tastes ordinary to something that tastes absolutely exquisite," Doeden said.

Doeden sat down with MPR News' Tom Crann to lay out the basics of honey and describe how she uses it to bring out the best in a wide array of foods.

Versatile simplicity

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While honey may seem pretty ubiquitous and may not have the specialty pizzazz of agave nectar or cane juice, it can add to a cheese and fruit platter or enhance a filet of salmon. Doeden said the sweetener can be a welcome — if not surprising — addition even to stir-frys or pork sliders, as well as treats like granola and muffins.

One particular recipe that she said benefits from a dose of the liquid gold is beet and carrot salad with honey balsamic dressing. In Doeden's experience, it's even changed the hearts of some of the most beet-hating eaters.

"My husband is averse to beets," she said. "He cannot stand beets. He won't go near a beet."

But with a little convincing and mixing honey into the dish, Doeden watched him go back for seconds.

Honey is also one of the only foods in the world that never spoils. It's even been found, still edible, in ancient Egyptian tombs.

"A lot of people don't understand that even in that form, honey is just fine to eat," Doeden said.

Not all honey is the same

Before you rush out to stock up on honey for mixing into new dishes, Doeden said to be sure of what you are purchasing.

She suggests buying raw local honey, which you should be able to find at farmers markets, local co-ops or even some grocery stores. This form of honey is not processed or exposed to heat, but likely strained to remove particles like bee parts.

"When you buy local honey, you know exactly what you're getting," Doeden said. "It was made by the bees. Nothing's been added to it. It hasn't been heated or pasteurized, and you're just getting the food that was made by the honey bees."

Doeden said honey that goes through processing is heated for pasteurization and often is mixed with other honeys and additives to improve shelf appearance.

Aside from the different physical forms that honey can come in, there are hundreds of potential variations in the sweetener, like wildflower, dandelion, clover, buckwheat. "The flavor of honey just depends on where the bees have foraged for their nectar and their pollen," she said.

"As that color becomes darker, the flavor becomes much bolder."

Give some love to the bees

Doeden has been raising her own honey bees for four years, which often provides her with honey lasting into the winter months.

"They say at the peak of the season, which is right now, you might have up to 60,000 bees in one hive," she said.

But if you can't care for swarms of bees, Doeden said one doesn't have to be a beekeeper to help honey bees. Stocking up on bee-friendly flowers and being mindful of yard care practices can help bees thrive.

"If you could stop using some harmful chemicals in your yard and maybe allow a few dandelions and a little bit of clover to grow, those are just real treats for the honey bees — they love those," she said.

Recipes from "Homemade with Honey"

Beet and Carrot Salad with Honey Balsamic Dressing

2 medium carrots
1 large red beet
1 chubby clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
red pepper flakes, to taste
1-1 1/2 tablespoons honey
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
fresh greens of your choice
2-3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Trim, peel, and grate the carrots and beet (see tip). You can use a food processor with a grater attachment or a box grater. Ideally, you will have equal amounts of grated beets and carrots, about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of each. Toss them together in a glass bowl.

Assemble the dressing by whisking together the garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, red pepper flakes, honey, salt, and pepper. Pour the dressing onto the vegetables and mix well. Allow to sit for at least a half hour so the flavors can develop. At serving time, spoon the salad over some fresh greens. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Serves 2-3.

Tips for the cook
• Use a vegetable peeler to peel the beets. Wear plastic gloves to protect your hands from getting stained. Wear an apron or an old shirt!
• This salad is the perfect canvas for a sprinkle of chopped walnuts and a few small knobs of creamy goat cheese all over a bed of arugula or curly endive.

Honey 'n' Oats Granola

3/4 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup honey
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
8 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup ground flaxseeds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large saucepan set over medium heat, combine oil, honey, brown sugar, and salt. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and stir.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, almonds, flax, wheat germ, sesame seeds, and cinnamon. Pour the warm oil and honey mixture into the oat mixture and stir until combined.

Spread the mixture evenly on two 17x12-inch rimmed baking sheets. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once about halfway through.

When granola is deep golden brown, remove from the oven. Cool completely in pan. Store in an airtight container up to 3 weeks. Makes about 12 cups.

Reprinted with permission from "Homemade with Honey" by Sue Doeden, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Want to learn more? Sue Doeden will be stopping by these locations for her "Homemade with Honey" book tour.

• Book Signing at KD Floral in Bemidji, August 7, 4-7 p.m.

• Blue Heron Trading Co. in Duluth, Sept. 10, cooking class followed by book signing

• Mill City Museum Baking Lab in Minneapolis, October 10, cooking demo with Joan Donatelle, author of "Astonishing Apples," 12:30 and 2 p.m.