Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Maple

Spring is coming. I went to upstate New York for a couple days for a visit and to see what maple trees do this time of year. Up there, the day is getting warmer, snow is melting and the trees are thinking about forming buds. Actually they are doing far more than that. The inner core of the tree is dead, just a memory of the rest of the tree's life, a structure for the living part to hold onto. When the temperature consistently rises enough, the living outside aggressively pulls water up from the ground to nourish the buds it wants to produce. This is when the sap is collected and processed into syrup. When the buds are ready to go, the sap changes and slows down, and the syrup season is over.

There were 6 tapped trees, and while I was there, the sap flowed and each tree gave about a gallon and a half of sap per day. The sap dripped like a leaky faucet into buckets that had to be dumped into a larger bucket, then carried down a little hill and stored in a huge trash barrel on the front porch until it could be boiled down into syrup in small batches. The ratio is about 44 units of sap to one of maple syrup.

I loved collecting the sap, (illustrated above by a young friend of mine). I guess I expected it to look thicker. It looks like water, though I think it catches light a little softer, but that could be how I want to see it. The sap varies by day and weather and tree size, but usually has about a 2% sugar content. To drink it from the tree is just drinking cold and clean water with the faintest sweet taste and the knowledge that you are drinking out of the side of the tree you are leaning on. I didn't expect to feel the way I did about the trees sharing water with me. Sharing their blood. I liked that water moved underground and roots gathered it up and it filtered through the stable body of the trunk. Standing in between the tapped trees, soft dings and thwaps of drops fall evenly into buckets. It was moving.

Here is syrup boiling on the woodstove. Below is a large version, an evaporator in the garage of a neighboring syrupman. It also has a fire underneath which must be stoked. The sap is poured in the top and the liquid travels through a series of channels. The heavier sugar saturated sap stays towards the bottom and is eventually released from a spigot. The more watery sap has more surface area above to release steam, so processing more volume goes a little faster. It is still pretty slow, especially if you are up to your ears in sap.

Some of the syrup I jarred. This is grade B, or at least not Grade A, which is the lighter colored first batch. These jars hadn't settled yet, so they are a little murky looking.

I made this maple fudge candy, something you can't really get wrong. There will be smiling no matter what!

Superbowl 2008 Chili Cook-Off

(1st photo by Andrei)

Here is the proof I attended and helped judge the 2008 Superbowl Chili Cookoff in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last month. There were three enthusiastic teams, and three cooking areas (assigned by lottery): the stovetop, the firepit, and the...elevated fire pit. The TV was moved to the backyard and it was cold enough to keep the beer outside.

The first team entered with an ambitious "surf and turf" concept. The corn was nice, but the heat was too much and the LOBSTER flavor was startling and detracted from this chili. I also considered the meat served alongside as distracting and a little brown-nosy. The cornbread muffin was good, but there was too much going on altogether in this entry.

The second team had a nice presentation with a simple and tidy fried ball of masa as the starch, which was unfortunately bland. The pork chili was married to a mole, which was a fabulous idea. There was a nice burn and it would have been really complex but it ended up getting bogged down in sweetness from the chocolate.

The third chili was also pork and was spicy and smoky. It reminded me of barbeque and was the most classic of the three. It was nice enough looking with a puff pastry and a drizzle of a cooling herbed something. I was excited about the new approaches to chili, but in this case the winner was the traditional one done just right.