Pleasure Sap

When I was a little girl with prairie-skirted ambitions to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, I once licked a tree. The darkening, wet stain on the bark of my backyard maple was too interesting to pass up. I knew that the sap wasn’t syrup, but I expected some sort of sensory recognition, some hint of taste that would connect that tree to my morning stack of flapjacks. What I got was a dirty tongue and the slightly sweet flavor of bark.

Undaunted, I knew I could forge maple syrup from this tree. They did it on Little House on the Prairie; how hard could it be? I imagined a sticky pot of amber syrup that I would bottle and sell to clamoring neighbors. I would be widely known as the Syrup Girl. Of course, I had no idea what toil came between tree and bottle. The Native Americans, who were using maple syrup as their primary sweetener when the colonists arrived, told a story of a time when the syrup flowed ready-to-eat from the tree. When a young spirit realized that man was becoming too lazy, spending all of his time eating the sweet sap, she poured a bucket of water into the center of the maple tree, diluting the syrup inside. From then on, man has had to labor to make syrup from watery sap.

Maple syrup is one of those commodities that make a nice gift for European visitors: It’s uniquely North American. The best trees for maple-syrup production tend to be black and sugar maples, both indigenous to certain regions of the northern United States and Canada. And yet, it’s the weather that has the most to do with maple success. Tapping is a rite of spring. From February through April, when warming days clear the freezing mark while still-frigid nights stay below freezing, sap will flow from trees. The daily change in temperature pressurizes the tree, which pushes out the sap. One tree will produce ten to twelve gallons of the watery, slightly sweet, and lickable sap.

Making syrup from sap involves slowly boiling away the excess water, concentrating the sugars. The early Americans refined the process by using iron pots and building “sugar shacks”—small, vented buildings that house the boiling equipment. Because it takes nearly forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, patience became a necessity. The sugar shack evolved into a community gathering spot. Many New England towns still celebrate the spring with maple festivals centered on the local sugarhouse.

Pure maple syrup is graded by color and flavor. Grade A light amber is very light with a mild, delicate flavor. Medium amber is a bit darker and richer, the most common table syrup, and dark amber is the darkest with a stronger maple flavor. Grade B, also known as cooking syrup, is made late in the season and has the strongest maple flavor. The cheaper, imitation “maple-flavored” syrups are usually made of corn syrup and contain less than three percent maple syrup. In Quebec, they refer to the faux syrup as sirop de poteau, as if it had been made by tapping telephone poles.

Most maple syrup is made in New York, Vermont, and Quebec, but our local producers haven’t been overlooked. The North American Syrup Council recently awarded Jake’s Syrups, from Vergas, a first-place medal in the medium amber category and a second-place medal for its dark amber.

To really celebrate the spring maple harvest, you’d almost need a month full of Sunday breakfasts. I’d start with the Mahnomin porridge from Hell’s Kitchen. The warm wild rice porridge with dried berries and hazelnuts is drizzled with maple syrup for the most refreshing, earthiest breakfast around. If you are in the mood for slightly fewer twigs-and-berries, a steamy bowl of oatmeal from Muffuletta hits the mark. Topped with crunchy pecans, apple-cranberry compote and maple syrup, it is a perfect tart and sweet morning balance.

If you prefer a doughy, yeasty treat, the brioche French toast, stuffed with cinnamon-apple filling, from 20.21 sets the high bar. French Meadow griddles up hubcap-sized pancakes every day. Varieties may change (cherry pecan cakes, wild rice blueberry cakes, banana walnut cakes, oh yeah), but never the pure maple syrup. If it’s all about waffles, there’s Andrew’s killer banana waffle from the Highland Grill and all of her sisters. You’d think that gooey caramelized bananas over a malted waffle would be enough, but it takes a thin stream of syrup to make every bite a beautiful mess.

And then there’s the happy collision of maple syrup and your breakfast meats. Who knew that crowding your plate could lead to such diversions as Fisher Farms maple sausage? Café Twenty Eight incorporates the slightly sweet sausage into a fluffy egg scramble, while The Craftsman lets it sit softly beside the sourdough French toast. But nothing, it seems, can top the Nicollet Island Inn’s “pigs in a blanket” brunch offering. Plump sausages tucked into a deep-fried pastry pocket with a spiced apple puree, stunningly doused in vanilla-bourbon maple syrup sauce. Purists be damned, this dish is taking maple to the next level.

I didn’t have the patience to realize my Syrup Girl ambitions. I couldn’t wait for more than a capful of tree juice, and my idea of slow boiling was to scorch one of my mom’s best pans by overcooking that capful. But I still appreciate the process and am happy to live near the educational Gale Woods Farm, where I can take my kids to learn about finding their own trees to lick.

Hell’s Kitchen, 89 S 10th St., Minneapolis;
612-332-4700; www.hellskitcheninc.com

Muffuletta, 2260 Como Ave., St. Paul;
651-644-9116; www.muffuletta.com

20.21, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
612-253-3410; www.wolfgangpuck.com

French Meadow, 2610 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis;
612-870-4740; www.frenchmeadow.com

Highland Grill, 771 Cleveland Ave. S., St Paul;
651-690-1173; www.highlandgrill.com

Café Twenty Eight, 2724 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis;
612-926-2800; www. cafetwentyeight.com

The Craftsman Restaurant, 4300 E. Lake St., Minneapolis;
612-722-0175; www.craftsmanrestaurant.com

Nicollet Island Inn, 95 Merriam St., Minneapolis;
612-331-1800; www.nicolletislandinn.com

Gale Woods Farm, 7210 County Rd. 110 W., Minnetrista;
763-694-2001; www.threeriversparkdistrict.org

SHOP TALK
Spring is in the air, and so by the end of the month, most of the major farmer’s markets will have reopened … Find answers to the most pressing of questions—What to eat for dinner?—by attending the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s symposium on the Ethics and Aesthetics of Eating on April 19. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, will be the keynote speaker and undoubtedly will raise some interesting points regarding what to eat and why (952-443-1422; arboretum.umn.edu) … Don’t miss the Seward Co-op’s annual Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) fair on April 21. Growers will be on hand to answer questions and even sell shares of their 2007 crops. New to the fair this year will be local, certified organic beef and naturally raised chicken and pork (612-338-2465; www.nicolletislandinn.com) … Tired of the same old Easter brunch? For the first time, the Oceanaire Seafood Room will be open for the holiday. The special brunch menu includes a smoked salmon “benedict” and Star Prairie Farms smoked trout hash (www.theoceanaire.com). But if it’s all about the eggs, you eggheads, then head to the Linden Hills Spring Fling Egg Hunt on April 7 for a park-wide hunt accompanied by light brunch and entertainment (www.minneapolisparks.org).

CUISINE SUPREME
Betty Jean’s Chicken & Waffles
Chicken and waffles might be the best solutions to that late-night dining conundrum: Should I order breakfast or dinner? While these old-fashioned staples are popping up on hot-spot menus everywhere, nobody does them quite like the bunch at Betty Jean’s, who honor the best old-school methods of preparation. First-timers should go for the signature Betty Jean: three crispy wings served with a crusty, hot waffle. More ravenous appetites will be sated by the Robert Earl, a half chicken with the choice of two sides. Those wishing to mix things up might consider the Uncle Milo, a pork chop served with eggs and a waffle. Everything on the menu smacks of home cooking. Whether it’s 2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m., this crew will cheerfully feed your cravings, both salty and sweet. 319 1st Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612-339-1968; bjschickennwaffles.com

Good Day Café
Getting to this restaurant, which is housed on the exact spot where the legendary Cocolezzone once sat, requires a good many twists and turns. But the food is worth the frustrating voyage. Once inside, the vibrant colors of the décor meet with an inviting staff to create a contemporary spin on comfort-food experience. The menu’s many winners include Iggy’s fried-egg sandwich with avocado and ham; banana and huckleberry brioche French toast; a nicely piled Reuben on a pretzel roll; and a beautifully balanced Cobb salad featuring flat iron steak, crispy spicy onions, and a poached egg over fresh spinach. For an added treat, try the creative café drinks and freshly juiced concoctions at the walk-up barista bar. 5410 Wayzata Blvd., Golden Valley; 763-544-0205

Crave
Crave is the stylish new restaurant in the Galleria space formerly occupied by Sidney’s. Warm metallics and pleasing shades of brown and gray lend this dramatic dining room a sense of coziness, despite its polished design. The glass-walled wine chamber is especially lovely and sets an elegant tone for diners and bar patrons alike. The menu is heavily Mediterranean influenced, featuring hearty pastas and pleasing flatbreads from the brick oven, but there are a few culinary surprises, such as an Asian-inspired tuna tartare dressed in a tangy sauce. Crave also sports a full sushi bar, though, to our tastes, it seemed a little disjunctive from the rest of the menu. 3520 70th St. W., Edina; 952-697-6000; cravemn.com