It’s Vermont’s first crop of the year! Once you spy steam escaping from your neighbor’s sugarhouse, you know spring is truly on its way, and in our county, that time is upon us.
That first stack of pancakes drizzled with gold is a reward hard won at the end of a cold winter, and we all have our favorites. The golden, light colored syrup harvested at the beginning of sugaring has the most delicate flavor, and this progress of color and maple intensity increases through the weeks. The darker syrups from the end of the season have the deepest maple flavor. This is not only my preference, but the best for cooking.
Vermont sugar makers simplified the grading of maple syrup a few years ago, and the USDA has adopted this system. Syrup is now all Grade A, with color and flavor variations now simply listed as golden, amber, dark, and very dark.
It is all about what you like best, and how you are using it. For instance, if you are using a delicate herb in the syrup for a glaze, use something on the light-colored and flavored side. When baking, use the darker syrups because the heat from the baking process dims the natural flavor, sometimes to nothing. I remember trying to recreate a maple-oat bread I had at a local restaurant, and could not get nearly enough of the maple flavor. When I finally coaxed the secret from the chef, he admitted to using a natural maple extract in addition to the syrup in order to boost the flavor. If you use an extract, make sure it is a natural maple extract and not something synthetic.
Infusing Liquid Gold
Infusing maple syrup is a great way to use that liquid gold with a multitude of flavors, and extending its use way beyond pancakes. New England cooks have long infused maple syrup with berries for a sweet topping, and no special recipe required; just simmer about a cup of syrup with about a cup of berries for about 10 minutes. You can strain it, or leave the berries whole.
That is just the beginning of the story. Maple syrup is easy to infuse for use with both sweet and savory dishes. The technique is simple. Warm the syrup with whatever it is you want it to marry, heat to a simmer for five minutes, and set it aside until cool. Strain if desired. Most are stable in the refrigerator for months.
Start simple if you like. A natural companion to the hardiness of maple is cinnamon. This sassy spice works well with many of the traditional breakfast staples, from waffles to coffee cakes, or any number of sides such as parsnips or carrots. Split a vanilla bean and add a cinnamon stick to infuse a cup of amber maple syrup and you’ve got a complex flavor bomb to adorn all those creations.
Herbs works beautifully, as do spices such as star anise, nutmeg, and cloves. Spirits can add a great dimension to the syrup as well, and some combinations are a natural: rum with cinnamon, and bourbon with cherry are both great pairings for maple, as is sambuca and fennel or anise. One of my favorites is dill and lemon.
In remarkably little time, you can have your own one-of-kind designer syrup to use and gift to others. Create your blend using what your family likes the best. Experiment, it is not rocket science, just taste as you go until you get the taste you want. The longer it sets, the more pronounced the flavor.
With many combinations, a little spicy heat makes it all better. A fresh jalapeño, a little cayenne, or a dried chili added while simmering will give a little snap to a host of sweet and savory flavors.
You can, of course, just brush a piece of salmon with maple syrup and roast it as cooks have been doing for years. But with a few simple tweaks, you can add a unique touch to this old standby.
Salmon Glazed with Sambuca Maple Syrup
Back in the day, cooks would glaze salmon and chicken with a little dark amber maple syrup, and that was pretty much it. The sweet with the savory was a good match. As time wore on, adventurous cooks added some mustard to the glaze to modernize it. Today, toppings abound for this staple fish, everything from nuts to horseradish, so it was a simple sidestep to create a special infused maple syrup to liven things up even more. (I realize that my great-grandchildren will probably scoff at this progression, question why we did all this fussing around back in the teens, and will just brush the salmon with simple maple syrup and call it a day).
This recipe uses a sambuca and fennel infused maple syrup (see recipe) in a simple three-ingredient glaze, which includes a little soy sauce and flavorful miso. Use the concoction to marinate, baste, and sauce the fish for enhanced flavor.
Serve this on a bed of simple sautéed leeks and fennel bulbs, and add some colorful buttered carrots to plate to round things out if you like.
Wild salmon is always best, so when it is season in the summer and early fall, this is always the best bet. I don’t like the texture of any salmon that’s been frozen, so I look for fresh organic farmed salmon, or fresh, farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands at this time of year. This Scottish salmon has tons of flavor and is raised in carefully controlled conditions that ensure healthy fish, farmed in cold waters, with a quick trip to the states.
¼ cup Sambuca infused maple syrup (see recipe here)
2 tbsp. red miso paste
2 tbsp. soy sauce
4 salmon filets, around 5 ounces each
Salt and pepper to taste
Lightly salt and pepper salmon. Whisk together the infused maple syrup, miso paste, and soy sauce. Pour half into a shallow bowl and add the salmon filets to marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Meanwhile, heat your oven to 450 degrees and place your baking pan or cast-iron frying pan on the middle rack to heat it up as well. This starts the cooking of your fish immediately and evenly once it is placed on the hot pan.
When the oven is hot, add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to the pan to cover the bottom. Place the salmon in the pan, skin side down, with room between each filet. Cook for five minutes, then brush with more glaze, reserving some for a sauce at the end. Put back in the oven for another three or four minutes.
Overcooking any fish results in a dry dish, so err on the side of a little under because you will have some carry over cooking after you take it out. Slip a sharp paring knife in the middle and peek a minute or so before you think it will be done, judging by how it felt at the earlier glazing. You will want the salmon to be a little opaque in the middle, and cooked to a medium only.
This is delicious served with rice, or placed atop a bed of sautéed fennel and leeks. Drizzle the filets with a little more of the glaze.