Le Canuck: Another Use for Maple Syrup

One bad experience with a certain type of booze can put you off forever. One time a friend and I split a bottle of maple-infused whisky. Big mistake. The flavour was sickly and the hangover definitely more devastating than it might have been if it were just straight whisky. (Don’t even ask about my experience with Slivovitz. It makes me heave a little just thinking of it.)

Anyway, with spring in full swing, and maple season so short, it’s fun to come up with as many ways to consume maple syrup as possible. The sap is on the rise, and so should you be.

So flipping through my old Jean Faitout cocktail book the other day, imagine my surprise landing on a recipe entitled “Le Canuck”, featuring a mix of whisky, lemon, bitters and maple syrup.

The recipe calls for 1 oz. of rye whisky, ½ oz. lemon juice, ½ oz. maple syrup and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.

To fill up a glass, you’ll want to double those measurements. But I’ve found that the lemon juice is a little powerful in those proportions. Better to increase it to ¾ of an oz. rather than a full ounce (in proportion to 2 oz. of whisky).

This is surprisingly tasty, and very much in keeping with the flavour of spring.

Le Printemps d’Érable: Making Maple Crème

Maple syrup falls into the category of perfect food. It arrives to us almost directly from nature, with minimal processing, and cannot be improved upon. It’s consistency is almost like mercury. That might be its only shortcoming, that in its raw form the stuff itself is temperamentally hard to pin down and challenges us to find other uses for its limited versatility. Would you like some pancakes?

It’s also special because the window for enjoying it is so quick. Sugaring off season comes and goes in a heartbeat during spring. And if you live in a place where sugar shacks operate, you’ll see them pop up and close again just before the fruit and vegetable stands take their place for summer.

With just a little effort, the quicksilver consistency of maple syrup in its raw form can be transformed into a spreadable version of an otherwise identical tasting iteration of itself: maple cream (aka. maple butter). After some trial and error, using a machine to stir the syrup with disastrous results, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to do this is by hand, using a wooden spoon. There’ll be a little fatigue in your future if you try this, but the result is so worth it you’ll wonder what you were whining about.

The method outlined on America’s Test Kitchen provides the clearest steps needed to attain the best result, along with its properly Protestant work ethic comments that seem to imply “no pleasure without suffering”. So get out your wooden spoon, and prepare to suffer your way towards a state of maple-induced euphoria. It’s a quintessentially Northeastern food, perfectly commingling the bounty of nature and a type of Puritan moral code that equates hard work and reward. No instant gratification here.

Contrary to what a lot of people might think, maple cream contains no ingredients other than maple syrup. It is only maple syrup heated up to boiling, brought back down to a cooler temperature, and then stirred until buttery in consistency. The fact that it’s often referred to as “maple butter” probably conveys the impression for a lot of people that it’s got some butter in it. Nope. It is purely and only 100% maple syrup, transformed.

You will need: 1) maple syrup 2) a saucepan large enough to allow for considerable bubbling up of the heated syrup 3) a candy thermometer 4) a bowl full of ice (for cooling the heated syrup down) 5) a jar into which to decant the finished product.

1) Attach a candy thermometer to the side of your saucepan and empty the maple syrup in.

2) Heat it over a medium-high setting until it bubbles up. Don’t panic when you see the bubbles rise. Don’t stir! Keep a spray bottle full of water to one side if you really think the syrup is going to spill over. One spray will be enough to calm the rising bubbles down. But don’t get carried away with it, and whatever you do, don’t disturb or stir the syrup in any way. You’ll need to leave it on the bubble for a good 15-20 minutes, until the thermometer reads precisely 235 degrees Fahrenheit.

3) Now pour the syrup into a bowl which you’ve placed in a larger bowl already filled with ice. Take the thermometer from the saucepan and affix it to the bowl with the syrup in it. Wait until the thermometer reads approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, let it be. Don’t stir or disturb the syrup in any way.

4) It will take at least 10 minutes to reach the desired temperature of 100 degrees. Now the work begins. Grab your wooden spoon in one hand and the bowl in the other, and stir, constantly agitating the syrup until it changes both colour and consistency. First you’ll see it change from an incredibly stiff and jewel-like brown clarity to an incredibly stiff and opaque dark brown. It will require a solid 15-20 minutes of diligent stirring (no joke) until it finally reaches a beautiful silky-smooth butter-like consistency. Put on a favourite record. An average side of vinyl ought to get you through. Or watch some boring television. But keep an eye on your stirring, because when the big moment arrives, you’re going to need to spring into action.

5) Stop stirring the moment the syrup reaches an almost granular buttery consistency, just after it loses its shine. If you keep stirring, you’ll have an essentially useless hard beige candy on your hands. Scoop the stuff into your jar right now, and be quick about it.

Bang, you’re finished. Now, scoop out a spoonful of this stuff and tell me all that work wasn’t worth it. The finished result is so incredibly delicious.

The only real shortcoming I can think of is that I haven’t really found any satisfactory accompaniment to spread the stuff onto. I hate to waste its flavour smearing it on other things, like breads or biscuits or whatever. The only thing that kind of hits the spot for me is to smear it on some apple slices. But nothing, nothing, nothing tastes quite so good as a spoonful of the raw stuff itself.

Macchina per il caffè

I sometimes feel that the day I finally grew up and became a man was the day I acquired and started using a La Pavoni coffee machine.  This happened a few weeks ago.  For the first several days, I kept stealing looks at it as it sat on the kitchen counter, gleaming like a prize from another century, past or future.  It combines elements of something like a highly technological samovar, a stainless steel Dalek, or possibly a time machine powered by a Tesla coil.  Going out the door in the morning was sad as I looked backwards, catching a glimpse of its silver figure sitting on the counter.  I couldn’t wait to get home to both use and look at this machine.  I feel lucky.

I never did have much luck with internet classifieds, which is where this machine showed itself to me initially.  I’ve been both ripped off and underwhelmed buying and selling things online.  And it was a last-minute decision to check the used kitchenware column online after weeks of research about which coffee machine would make the best possible purchase.  After more or less eliminating the higher-end espresso machines, both for cost and counterspace footprint, I finally narrowed things down to an automatic machine that looked a little like Darth Vader’s helmet, but would, according to its reviews, dispense a perfectly good and absolutely uniform cup of coffee time after time at the push of a button.

The La Pavoni is what’s known as a manual machine.  It wouldn’t be sufficient to say that the difference between it and the automatic machine I had settled on was comparable to the difference between an automatic and a manual car.  It’s more like the difference between a bullet train and a steam engine, with live men constantly shovelling coal into the engine’s fiery, all-consuming maw.  Reviews that I read of the La Pavoni online scored it surprisingly low, which put me off until I realised that the sample had been distorted by people who were expecting a god-like machine that produced perfect coffee forever but then became easily frustrated by the fact that no two cups of identical coffee could ever be produced by the damned thing.  But that is exactly why I wanted it.  To make cups of coffee the way the sky makes snowflakes.

Those reviews by people who preferred a push-button approach to coffee were luckily corrected by account after account of, “I purchased a La Pavoni in 1972 and ended up giving it to my son who needed a coffee machine for college, and anyway I wanted to buy a new one,” or words to that effect.  I was struck by how indestructible they seemed, wondering how a company that hadn’t figured some kind of planned obsolescence into their product design could even stay in business.  If the thing never breaks down, where will your repeat business come from?  Customer happiness and loyalty, I suppose.

Up to this point, I had got used to drinking coffee from bars that made it well enough and never thought I would have the resources or kitchen space to really dedicate to a proper espresso machine.  Honestly, the best method for making coffee I’d found up to this point was the AeroPress, which is a surprisingly low-tech plastic tube that looks a lot like a syringe and makes a nice, strong cup.  As I looked into pursuing the dream of making more advanced coffee, I began to lose hope.  And then, on a whim, I checked the classifieds, spotted that ad and contacted the sellers.

They were a Russian couple of fairly advanced age who lived in Pierrefonds, a suburb of Montreal.  So a visit was in order to this alien place where people live in homes separated from each other by lots of yard space and greenery all around.  The streets were completely free of sidewalks.  While finding the address, I had the feeling of being an intruder, like someone on neighbourhood patrol might step out and ask to see my papers.  Ringing the bell, I had an instantly good feeling upon meeting the sellers.  It turned out that they had purchased the machine two years earlier during a trip to Italy and that the husband used it only occasionally, the reason for this being that he had recently acquired a more serious machine.  How serious?  The man roasts his own green coffee beans in the shed out back, that’s how serious.  He made me a coffee using the La Pavoni that was close to perfection there in the kitchen, so I closed the deal immediately.  The wife was angry that he was getting rid of it.  She had a sentimental attachment that she associated with their time in Italy, and also it happens to be a spectacular looking object.  I assured them it was going to a good home.  He let me know that another prospective buyer who was scheduled to come by later would be disappointed.  It was just a matter of luck that I was first.

Meantime, over the last several weeks I’ve made dozens of cups of coffee with the thing, some approaching transcendentally good, but many I would describe as watery, bitter or somehow otherwise lacking.  Most of them are almost there, and it drives me crazy which variable I was missing that could have produced a more perfect shot.  It’s temperamental.  Part of both the joy and frustration lies in figuring the thing out.  I think I’ll stop short of referring to it as “her” instead of “it”, at the risk of sounding truly creepy.  Anyway, there are so many variables:  fineness of the grind, how hard I tamp the coffee down into its basket, how much coffee I use, when I raise the lever relative to how much pressure has built up in the steam head, how fast I raise the lever, how fast I lower the lever.  When the Russian couple told me that a lot of people find this machine more trouble than it’s worth, I let them know that for me, the temperamental nature of the machine is a source of pleasure.  The pleasure I’ve had, just from the quality of coffee produced by the thing, has easily outweighed any trouble.

An Invitation to Meat

A while back, I received a phone call from a friend of mine whose significant other is a vegetarian.  “Can we have dinner and eat a lot of meat?” she asked.  I like nothing better than to be an enabler, and replied, yes, I would love to put together a big meat dinner, just as long as you bring cigarettes.  It’s a you-scratch-my-back kind of arrangement.  This became a surprisingly fulfilling little project.

Partly, I felt duty bound to help because I can see both sides of the meat problem and am sensitive to the hazards it can create for your love life.  Her boyfriend was the type of guy who (and I admire this) actually read an article in a magazine about meat and simply decided to stop eating it.  I was once a vegetarian for five years solidly, eight years if you count falling off the wagon a couple times and getting back on again.  And I had a little experience with the carnivore-herbivore dating dynamic, and so could, if I can borrow the expression, feel their pain.  When I was a vegetarian I dated a meat-eater, who, God bless her, tolerated my too-pure ways for a few years.  And on the other side of the register, I’ve tasted that medicine back, having dated a vegetarian who was not at all comfy with my acquired and very enthusiastic meat habit.  All of these relationships have ended.  Not to say such a relationship could never work, but dietary alienation is at least as effective a source of tension as long-distance.  The meat was definitely a factor.

It’s not like you can enforce a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy with regards to eating meat within the bounds of a relationship.  Do you eat two smoked meat sandwiches on your lunch break before heading home to your vegetarian girlfriend?  Gobble half a pound of bacon secretly while she’s out of town for the weekend?  Hustle down to the laundry room to get the stains out of your shirt?  There is no Extra-Strength Lady Macbeth brand laundry detergent that will help you.  So you might as well confess.

I’ve watched with fascination over the last several years the development of the nose-to-tail movement, which seems to consist mainly (in its adherents more than its proponents) of liberal-minded meat eaters developing a moral pang and enrolling in a butchery class or shopping “free range” in order to assuage decades of guilt.  The way I used to win arguments with people who’d prod me over why I was a vegetarian was to say: “Listen, if you think you could actually kill an animal yourself after looking it in the eye and then skin it, gut it and cook it, then terrific.  Have fun.”  I was a vegetarian for moral, not health reasons.  The death made me queasy.

The kind of people who consume slabs of red on a white styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic with the same gravity with which they’d peel and eat an orange were never really the people who tended to pursue these arguments with me.  I remember an episode of Get a Life, in which Chris Elliot says to his father, à propos of nothing, idiot grin on his face, “Dad, where does meat come from?”  The father, played by Brian Doyle-Murray, scrunches up his face as if to say, can he be mine?  He’s just too stupid to live.  This is not the kind of person who would interrogate me about meat.  No, it was always nice, middle-class, college-educated types trying to tilt me off the pedestal of righteousness.  The kind of person who thinks seal hunting is the worst crime in history and then goes and eats a bacon cheeseburger, who loves the song Imagine but has never lived outside of a metropolitan area.  For all the wishful thinking and masochism, it will take exactly one trip to anywhere to disabuse this person of the idea that only Westerners treat animals callously.  People may not be eating porterhouses on the Subcontinent or in the South Pacific, but the uses and varieties that people all over the world find for animals would cause even the most nonchalant North American meat eater to stop and gaze in open-mouthed horror.

I am not here to guilt you out on this subject.  I do think that being a vegetarian did me a good turn in that I learned to cook excellent meals with no meat at all, which is a trick I can still pull off.  If your desire for steak and foie gras is really too much for you, make a resolution that you’ll quit for a year.  If anyone asks you, tell them you’re writing one of those stunt memoirs, like not using toilet paper for a year or attending other people’s funerals, so that you can keep a blog on the subject and maybe parlay that into a book deal (it’s been done).  Such a ruse will at least provide necessary cover while you figure yourself out.  Adulthood begins with the acceptance of responsibility, both conceptually and in practice.  Knowing that actions have consequences (what some people call “karma”) is part of what it means to be an adult.  The fact remains, however, that your dog will stop loving you the day you decide to feed it only vegetarian kibble because you’re squeamish about industrial farming.  And rightly so.

The next time you envision a friend who would “never hurt a fly” who nonetheless enjoys a munch of bacon, endorphin coursing through their pleasure centres, you’ve caught yourself in the act of keeping two sets of books.  Pigs are sweet, intelligent, lovely animals, who play no part in your desire to eat them and they also apparently make excellent pets.  The cost of living a double life is high, as evidenced by a striking comment from a man who took one of those butchery courses (enrolment is very pricey!), “Animals do not want to die.  They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second.  If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes.  It is not going to absolve you.”

Now that industrial farming and technology have freed us from daily contact with food production, there’s really no excuse left for eating meat at all, except for simple enjoyment of it.  We are no longer subsistence farmers and hunters, not recently anyway.  Even a cookbook like Joy of Cooking kept, until its second edition, recipes for preparing and cooking squirrel or other game you might find wandering through or flying over your yard.  These were normal eating habits just a couple generations ago.    Eating meat may very well be a holdover relic of humanity’s barbarous past, something we could better live without.  But I can think of several other relics we keep around that make absolutely no sense in the face of modernity.  And you, like your dog, have biological urges that will not be satisfied by a technocratic diet.

So what a relief it finally was when I decided to join the human race, with its bloodlust and tulip-mania, by acknowledging its lengthy cultural history of dependence on animals.  I no longer felt like a space alien visiting the Earth in silent judgement.  I took up barbecuing.  Since deciding to end my own vegetarianism, I have noticed that I tend to go for odd or serious cuts of meat, identifiable body parts, innards, brains, etc., to come to grips with what I’m eating, and to take it seriously.

Bone marrow has become almost my favourite food ever, roasting a length of bone in the oven until the marrow is golden and buttery, scooping it on to little toasts and then sprinkling a couple crystals of sea salt on top.  Make a simple salad of Italian parsley, a diced shallot, olive oil and lemon juice, maybe a few capers.  The citrus-on-green cuts the over-the-top richness of the marrow, which is a pleasure bullet straight to the brain.  The garnish is optional, but it grounds you, brings you back from the catatonic state that the marrow by itself induces.  Unimaginably delicious.  That and marinated, slow-roasted pork belly was what was on the menu on the evening of the aforementioned meat party.  The post-meal cigarettes and guilty laughter probably gave my neighbours the wrong idea.

Meat Story

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to be gifted a copy of Jennifer McLaglan’s wonderful cookbook, Fat.  It coincided exactly with my own ethos towards food at that time, obsessed as I was with using off cuts and resisting the hysteria around misunderstood ingredients.   I pored over this book relentlessly and lustfully, using it to learn the craft of making my own confit de canard, as well as incorporating things like bone marrow and tripe into my diet.  So it was with unalloyed delight that I nabbed a copy of her follow-up book, Odd Bits, released late in 2011.  So accustomed was I now to her way of treating food that the novelty factor of the title didn’t strike me at all.  I now regarded “odd” as normal, and was eager to dive into the new book.

Following the recipes in Fat led me into some delightful and odd situations, in which I sought out kidneys, preferably still encased in the heavy layer of fat that surrounds them (butchers usually clean and discard or sell this as lard before putting the kidneys out for sale), and later when I walked into a butcher on Mont-Royal boulevard asking in anglo-inflected French for some “peau de cochon” (pig skin).  The girl behind the counter, thinking I was mispronouncing, replied, “Porc?  Ah, oui, c’est par là,” and gestured towards a gleaming tray full of pork cutlets.  As I reiterated that, no, I was after “peau” and pinched my own skin to clarify, her face transformed from a delighted smile to a twisted, horrified grimace, as if I were requesting materials to construct a costume made of skin that I would then sew together and wear.  I ended up finding an East European butcher who treated my request as absolutely normal.

It’s that dissonance between “odd” and “normal”, something that the East European gets, not to mention most of the rest of the world, that has led to a topsy-turvy alienation between people and food, exacerbated by industrial methods of production.  Not knowing what you’re eating or where it comes from is odd.  Or it should be.  Knowing as much as you can, and appreciating that knowledge, ought to be normal.  But the reverse is the case.  When I was a teenager, I became a vegetarian, which I kept up for eight years.  I rejected meat because it was the most obvious manifestation of the hypocrisy that exemplified pretty much every aspect of life as I had come to know it.  The same person who would eat prime cuts and bacon with abandon would make a sick face if exposed even slightly to the business end of how those cuts came to be on their plates, or even to hear the process described.  In the end, I decided that the only way I could take up eating meat again was to accept the responsibility for paying a butcher to kill on my behalf.

While Jennifer McLaglan is a Torontonian by way of Australia, this attitude towards meat has been pioneered by a food genius from Québec called Martin Picard.  I was lucky enough to nab a copy of his first book, Au Pied de Cochon, and also to live close enough to his restaurant that I’ve been able to eat there several times.  Picard’s genius is in elevating the food culture of Québec to an art form, an approach that could be applied anywhere, embracing and celebrating the culture and cuisine of one’s ancestors rather than putting it out of your mind, regarding food as something that materialises with the push of a button.  To appreciate how far we’ve come in so short a time, the second edition of The Joy of Cooking, printed in the early 1960s, contained diagrams detailing how to skin and prepare a squirrel, an animal running through the yards of the middle classes, the book’s target audience, encouraging them to get out there and kill.  Somewhere over the course of a mere 40 years, such intimate knowledge of game, meat and fish vanished, replaced by a strip of red on white styrofoam that the average person wouldn’t know from which animal it came, never mind which part of that animal it was.  The crusades of Picard and McLaglan have begun the pushback, which needed only a slight push to gather momentum.

It may be no accident that the all-hands-on-deck approach to meat is easier to sell in Québec, which produced two excellent books in 2011, Market Chronicles: Stories and Recipes from the Jean-Talon Market, by Susan Semenak; and The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts, by Frédéric Morin and David McMillan.

Every city should be so lucky as to have a farmers’ market, and not many rival Montréal’s Marché Jean-Talon.  The market itself is lucky to have as its chronicler Susan Semenak, whose book introduces the reader to most of the key proprietors at the market, whether butchers, fishmongers or eggmen.  It’s full of spectacular recipes and is thoughtfully organized by season, so you’ll know exactly what to do with that basket of fava beans in June.

These books, alongside McLaglan’s two cookbooks and Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon volume, go a long way towards making up a bookshelf that presents a cohesive food worldview.  While it’s true that this approach has been on the march elsewhere for years, led by celebrity chefs such as Bourdain and David Chang, the title presented by the proprietors of Griffintown’s Joe Beef sums it up best:  the art of living.  Montréal is a place where the average person is a food critic, you’re never more than a couple blocks from foie gras, you can buy a tub of duck fat in the supermarket, wine is regarded as a grocery, and pleasure is still derived from smoking.  Someone I know from Vancouver recently expressed disapproval at the “hedonism” of Montréal.  “Duh!” I replied.  “Why do you think I live here?”

The exclamation mark resting at the end of your Québec-centric bookshelf ought to be Martin Picard’s second book, Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon.  Thoughtfully released to coincide with sugar shack season, it chronicles his adventure running a cabane à sucre just north of Montréal.  Extending the first book’s genre of edgy, unconventional publishing techniques, no one should be surprised that it, like the old Joy of Cooking, includes a recipe for squirrel.

The Great Pumpkin

In mid-November, before the snows started flying, I went up to the big food market in town to see what end-of-autumn stuff was around.  Seeing a pile of pumpkins was a bit startling, post-Halloween.  It seems like pumpkins are meant to be carved decoratively, smashed in the road by teenage hoodlums and not thought of again until next autumn.  Their purpose after Halloween is unclear to me.  Foodwise, I was stumped what to do with them other than pumpkin pie.  Then, since this market is in my city’s Little Italy, I remembered noticing, in Diane Seed’s great The Top One Hundred Italian Dishes, a recipe that involved a pumpkin.  I like this book because a lot of the dishes are very plain.  The recipe for boiled meats is precisely several types of meat boiled, for example.  There’s a weird, tweed-jackety comfort to extremely plain food.  It’s probably, I think, a lot closer to the way people actually eat than the recipes we tend to associate with national cuisines, which is similar to the way we’re presented international competitions of fireworks displays, this explosion representing Italy, that one China, etc.  I don’t want to eat explosions.  Thinking of boiled meats and boiled pumpkin made me think of the kind of food Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimee might have sampled in the whore’s kitchen in La Dolce Vita before they crossed the room in their evening wear, walking on planks draped across the flooded floor, to the bedroom.

Anyway, I figured the pumpkin would reward me somehow so I picked out a small one, about three pounds, and brought it home.  Dismantling the pumpkin was almost as weird and difficult as taking apart a crab or some other kind of small animal.  Maybe because we make it personal by carving faces in them.  But they are hefty things, and they have a tough hide.  Seed claims the recipe comes from Basilicata in southern Italy.  The Italian giveaway is that it uses white beans.  She sautees two cloves of garlic in 3 tablespoons of olive oil, adding the pumpkin’s flesh which has been finely sliced and a bay leaf, pinch of salt and cayenne pepper, covering it to cook until the pumpkin is tender, with a bit of water if needed (I didn’t use any).  About 250 grams of white beans are stirred in at the end and a few fennel seeds are scattered over top.  It’s a really subtle dish.


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965