How do you go about describing maple syrup to a French family that can’t speak a lick of English?
In my English-brain, I was filled to the brim with descriptors just waiting patiently to be uncorked. Without much conscious cajoling, they spilled over into a steady stream. Maple syrup is:
- Among the top five reasons to love Maine, in spite of the ever-increasing tolls on I-95N and the back-to-back blizzards that pummel us winter after winter.
- A liquid candy that magically forms in a process that is admittedly over my head. I do know it includes tapping the trunks of maple trees, filling rickety buckets with sticky sap, lugging them to a log cabin in the middle of a [hopefully] dense forest, and heating great big sheets of the stuff in order to make most of the water evaporate and increase the concentration of sugar. If you’re a lucky kid, it also involves several bowls of “sugar on snow”. Curious? Pour heaps of still-warm syrup over scoops of WHITE snow [if you have older brothers, you’ll understand the need for those shouty capitals], and enjoy immediately, preferably from the comfort of your own personal snow angel.
- Something that drizzles like nothing else: it’s neither too runny nor too thick, and absolutely ideal for decorating a short stack of French toast or a plate-sized pancake.
- Worth a pretty penny, even where it’s locally made. However, to people who grew up on the good stuff, using [to quote my dad] “that artificial crap” is out of the question. Stocking your pantry with Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth is the only conceivable way to sour the trademark sweetness of maple syrup.
- One of my major objections about leaving New England – although if I settle down in England England, I’ll gain unlimited access to stick-to-your-ribs spongy sticky toffee puddings and made-for-the-morning-market Cornish pasties.
Meanwhile, in my French-brain, I groped for equivalents and floundered for phrases that would do justice to my carefully wrapped hostess gift. With a jolt of panic, I realized I didn’t even know the word for “maple syrup”. I felt my boyfriend’s hand on the small of my back as he whispered sirop d’érable in one warm breath. I parroted the unfamiliar syllables back to the kind faces in the room at large.
Momentarily gaining momentum, I stuttered: C’est un goût de la..du..de Maine [it’s a taste of Maine]. Then: nothing. My French-brain was obviously still nestled among my college things, not packed in the faded red suitcase beside me. Several heartbeats raced by, and I blundered on: La saveur est très agréable, un peu comme le miel, mais même encore plus sucrée [the taste is very good, a little like honey, but even sweeter]. It was the best I could do, after a long flight and a week’s worth of anxiety about “meeting the parents” for the very first time.
In retrospect, I should’ve just let a simple syrup speak for itself. I should’ve made them this maple-balsamic sauce, which works equally well atop crispy salmon filets or thick-cut pork chops. The glaze itself is very simple – you just have to have a little bit of patience while the vinegar reduces, and a little bit of practice eyeing and smelling the difference between caramelizing and burning. I highly recommend throwing leftover caramelized onions in the mix too, should you happen to have some lying around from a failed 48-hour fiasco with a slow cooker.
Searing the meat is the most traumatic part of the whole operation, with the hissing coconut oil sputtering all over everything in sight. Don’t wear something nice when you make this dish. Even with the lid firmly clapped on the frying pan, hot oil jumps in leaps and bounds.
I feel a little funny telling you how to cook the meat through [or in salmon’s case – not through at all]. Honestly, I’m still learning. Most of the time, when I do remember to let the skillet get sizzling hot before plopping down the protein, I get a picture-worthy, juice-sealing sear on both sides for about 45 seconds, and then it all goes to hell.
BUT, this is where balsamic vinegar comes in for the rescue. When the meat starts to stick and the pan sounds like it’s getting too hot, tip in more balsamic than you think you need [half of it is going to disappear]. Don’t worry about that acrid smell [try not to breathe in those fumes!], and know that all those brittle bits in the bottom of the pan will unstick in a second. Don’t go away, keep stirring – and the vinegar will eventually boil down into a tart and syrupy glaze.
To make it sweeter, add some maple syrup, taste, and re-evaluate. To make it more savory [Microsoft Word’s spell check is telling me “savorier” is a word – I’m not buying it], add as much or as little maple syrup as you want and about half as much Dijon mustard. Both versions are delicious, although the maple syrup really shines without the mustard for company.
And at this point, I would have been able to beam with something appropriate to say: Bon Appétit!
[A Highly Adaptable] Recipe:
1/3 cup high-quality balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon real maple syrup
½ tablespoon of Dijon
After you’ve seared the meat on high heat and once it really begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add the balsamic vinegar.
Bring it to a boil, and let it thicken [I find it helpful to stir the mixture frequently with a wooden spoon].
When about half the vinegar is gone and it’s taken on the consistency of a sauce, add the maple syrup [and Dijon, if you’re going that route].
Stir to mix well for an additional minute or two.
Spoon over the meat [which will be done and not underdone or overdone, if you have any luck!] and eat immediately!