I’ve been on a lot of field trips, including a visit to some of my Michigan neighbors who make wood-fired maple syrup.
I first met the Flemings when I bought some of their fabulously delicious red bell peppers at the Saugatuck Farmers Market a couple years ago.
I joined them as they tapped some trees in the woods on their farm.
I’ve been enamored with maple syrup since I read Miracles on Maple Hill, a charming story set in the 1950s. A must-read for nature lovers and fans of children’s literature.
But back to the syrup.
This strange so-called “spring” we’re having, which included a dusting of snow this morning, makes for a longer maple season as freeze-and-thaw cycles make the sap run longer.
Producers tell me when it goes from cold straight to warm, the sap comes all at once and then they’re finished. So in this case the crazy weather is an asset.
Maple syrup might be the North American continent’s earliest sweetener. Native Americans taught settlers how to make it, tapping trees with stones, then using bark to funnel the sap into birch buckets. It was concentrated by dropping hot stones into the buckets.
Today, the process is remarkably similar. At the first hint of spring, when a freeze/thaw cycles begin, sap comes up from the roots to nourish the branches. Trees are tapped with a drill, then plastic taps are “tapped” in with a hammer and a tube attached that resembles a medical IV tube. The sap runs into food-safe buckets, which get emptied into a larger bucket, then into a tank on the back of a truck. The truck is dispatched to the sugar shack, where the sap is pumped into a holding tank near the evaporator.
The evaporator could be considered a giant rectangular saucepan with thermometers and indicators to be sure it never gets to a simmer.
The sap, which tastes sweet but is a clear liquid like water, is warmed until most of the liquid evaporates, leaving a rich amber syrup. The syrup is then drawn off, filtered, graded, and then bottled for market.
It takes about 50 to 60 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, which gives you an indication of why the price is so dear - there’s a lot of work that goes into that golden amber.
And a little goes a long way.
My favorite way to enjoy it?
Drizzled over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt. With all due respect to pancakes, waffles and French toast, for some reason the creamy/sweet combination is the ultimate pleasure for me. Here, I’ve strained whole milk yogurt to thicken it a little. Enjoy.
With that important business taken care of, let’s move to the kitchen, shall we?
One of the most rewarding parts of road-tripping across the Midwest to research my book, was connecting chefs who share my dedication to farmers.
Like Julie Ridlon of St. Louis, who has Chanterelle Catering and also founded a farmers market in that fine city. She helped guide me to great growers and markets.
More important, Chef Julie converted me to eggplant.
I’ve never been much of a fan, and Julie told me getting fresh eggplant make all the difference. So here we are, almost greeting autumn, where eggplant and zucchini and tomatoes are groaning on the farm table, and I can’t get enough of it.
Thus it’s time to make caponata, a flavorful Italian salad that’s perfect for making after work because it’s SO easy, and also relaxing with all the chopping to do. And it’s easily adaptable to what you like and what’s in season. Julie likes it with goat cheese on a baguette. I like it straight from the jar.
So get out to your market and find a new food to convert to. Enjoy.
Caponata, Italian Eggplant Salad
Chef Julie Ridlon, Chanterelle Catering, St. Louis, Missouri
Makes about six cups
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onion, peeled and chopped (red or yellow)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large eggplant or 4 smaller eggplants (peel half the skin with a potato peeler and leave the rest for texture), cut into ½-inch cubes
3 - 4 summer squash cut into ½-inch cubes (try any combination of zucchini, zephyr or crookneck)
1 - 2 red, yellow or orange peppers, seeded and cut into cubes
2 stalks of celery, cut into 1/2″ pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 - 2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
3 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup raisins (use golden or dark raisins, or currants)
¼ cup capers drained, or 1/3 cup pitted calamata olives
8 large basil leaves, thinly sliced
Sauté the onion, garlic, eggplant, squash, peppers and celery for eight to 10 minutes, stirring to make sure it does not burn, until fork tender. Depending on ripeness, it may take an additional five to10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
As the vegetables cook, whisk together the cider vinegar, brown sugar, thyme and chili flakes, if using, in a small bowl. Toss together in a large bowl the tomatoes, raisins, capers or olives and basil. Stir in cooked eggplant mixture, and taste for balance, adding additional vinegar, salt or sugar. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator.
First, it feels a little sacrilegious to make homey, cozy mac ‘n’ cheese with one of the most awarded cheeses of a generation. But I was happy to take one for the team, believe me. Stay tuned.
I feel ever so virtuous because I tested my recipe — with culinary diligence and vigor — and still came out with a little wedge perfect for sharing with you, at least in spirit.
About Pleasant Ridge Reserve
When Mike Gingrich set out to make a cheese in the French beaufort style, along with his wife Carol and their partners Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, he knew the key was the milk. They’d created a closed herd with nine breeds of cows known for making flavorful milk, and grazed those cows on the rolling hills of the Uplands region of Wisconsin. The milk used in Pleasant Ridge is straight from the pasture. Until recently, whenever pasture declined and froze over, the milk would go to other cheese makers. (What they do with it now is even more exciting. More about that in a minute.)
My special fondness for Pleasant Ridge stems from our early acquaintance, kind of the way you have a long-lasting affection for your best friend in kindergarten. I first met the Gingriches and the Patenaudes ten years ago when they made the trek to Chicago for Green City’s winter market when the cheese was hot off the press. It was a mere $14 a pound then, well below the $25 or so it commands now. I’d allow myself only a half-pound ration, knowing it would be eaten later that day, whether or not I had help.
the good news…
And now, joy of joys, Pleasant Ridge has a younger sister, Rush Creek Reserve, created with the newest cheese maker with the company, Andy Hatch. It’s a seasonal cheese made with the autumn milk, when the grasses are dying back and the cows are fed hay. It’s a gorgeous soft cheese, aged only 60 days and sold in a 12-ounce wheel rimmed with spruce bark. The presentation is delightful - you slice off the top rind to reveal the creamy cheese in its own little container. And scoop away. Bread, crackers and potatoes make a great base, but spoon to mouth is so tempting.
My friends Shirley and Earl brought us some for Christmas. They are Dodgeville residents and we had a giggle about how all the folks who have a food crush on Andy Hatch, who is bright eyed and unassuming and would probably blush at all the flutter. We dug in right away and sadly I only have the label to show you. But you can find shots of how to serve it in the New York Times and over at Driftless Appetite, written by fellow cheese lovers Leslie and Keith. It’ll be a big hit at your New Year’s gathering.
And to carry on our French theme for today, you can pop over to Misadventures With Andi, where I’m guest posting while she enjoys a Parisian get-away. I write about how it’s possible to invoke a little Paris into your life, no matter where you live. All you need is the proper joie de vivre!
Think about subscribing to my newsletter, or my feed. Or tweet with me! Photo from my last Paris trip compliments of Janine MacLachlan, www.RusticKitchen.com. All rights reserved.
Last week I thought I was embarking on a fact finding mission, a listening tour. A better-than-average business trip for sure. But afterward it felt like the best kind of summer camp. One filled with field trip after field trip (literally) and time on the bus with the most fun people. The kind of camp that leaves one with warm memories and the wish that it could go on and on.
The cheesemakers behind all this deliciousness are good friends and neighbors who encourage each other’s businesses. They are also one opinionated bunch, who seem to agree on very little. For instance:
“Raw milk still comes with risks” v. “Raw milk is the way to go. Here, have a sip.”
“We mix flavors into almost all our cheeses” v. “Nothing should interfere with the flavor of the cheese.”
“Our cows yield more milk than the industry standard” v. “Maximizing yield is not a good idea.”
“We make more than 70 cheeses” v. “we make one cheese.”
French president Charles DeGaulle once said ”how can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”
I can see where DeGaulle was coming from.
Despite all the difference of opinion, there was not one cheese I didn’t like. Many were swoon worthy. Granted, this might be the most-awarded collection of cheese makers ever assembled, and thus the bar is pretty high. Sid Cook, Carr Valley’s master cheese maker, has won more awards than any cheese maker in the world (yes, the world), and Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society three times. No other cheese has won more than once.
All in all, it’s the artisan nature that sets these cheeses apart from the slices and shreds we find in the grocery store. Regardless of differing philosophies, these cheese makers consider themselves friends and colleagues. Nice company indeed.
So stay tuned for more, including some recipes I’m cooking up using the stash I brought home.
Think about subscribing to my newsletter, or my feed. Or tweet with me! Photos compliments of Janine MacLachlan, www.RusticKitchen.com. All rights reserved.
It’s the sunroom at Pinecone Meadow Farm. The room is switched around a little now - the table faces the garden, and the view is much better since I replaced the circa 1970s sliders with chic French doors and framed them with crisp cotton curtains. And I moved the flowers.
Another favorite place is the back yard.
Although that’s risky because I’m frequently distracted by the garden and lovely breeze. But it’s a great place to contemplate my gardening posts, or to think about what’s for dinner.
And sometimes I blog at the Chicago loft.
Instead of a lake breeze, the distraction there is of the four-legged variety. As with the farmhouse sunroom, this is an older photo of my glass-topped iron desk.
The setting is the same, but Dexter, the handsome orange boy with the v-neck sweater and oversized personality, went to cat heaven a few months ago. Fiona still stretches out to help me work.
Photos compliments of Janine MacLachlan, www.RusticKitchen.com. All rights reserved. If you enjoy this post, please consider subscribing to my newsletter, or my feed. Or let’s tweet!
Photographs of farm pictures at the National Gallery of Art in DC, including The Red Schoolhouse by Winslow Homer and Cape Cod Evening by Edward Hopper,Â compliments of Janine MacLachlan, whoÂ traveled to Washington to review grantsÂ for the Farmers Market Promotion Program, and discovered farm life was everywhere.