Down East 2013 ©
I get grumpy around this time of year. Everywhere else in the country people are celebrating the beginning of spring. My friend from northern California calls me with reports of "gorgeous, aromatic" flowering trees and fields of yellow and white jonquils. She describes the weather as "perfect." I threaten to hang up on her. Even in New York City, where I spent the weekend recently, the bulbs are inches high, peeking their heads out of that concrete jungle earth and announcing the end of winter. But here in Maine the piles of white, now turning a distinctly unattractive shade of gray, are ever present. Old snow sits in huge discarded heaps in the driveway, in the fields across the street, and as far as the eye can see. It is a constant reminder that spring in Maine has not arrived, and won't come until it damn well feels like it.
On top of it all my husband is missing. Each night when I crawl into bed, exhausted from this not-quite-winter-and-not-quite-spring limbo we're in, he is not there. I can hear him outside clanging around in the dark. This is not a man prone to disappearing or making strange noises in the dead of night, but it's maple season and he's a small-time enthusiastic harvester. Each year (or nearly each year, my husband is convinced the trees need a year off every now and then, like some kind of athlete in danger of being over-trained), we tap a half dozen maple trees and wind up with a small, but exceptional batch of syrup. Each year it's like a small miracle to me. During this time when there appears so little hope in nature, these trees drip clear, innocuous liquid, which tastes like barely sweetened water. But days later, after much boiling and sweet steam evaporation, we are left with golden amber syrup that can only be described as buttery. It is, without doubt, the best part of late March.
I've been cooking with our syrup as much as possible, and not just in the standard breakfast kind of dishes. Yes, I love to pour it on pancakes and waffles and French toast, and drizzle it over my morning toast, but the possibilities are so much greater. I like to glaze nuts in syrup and serve them in salads or as a snack. I like to spoon a few tablespoons over ham and chicken breasts with syrup (it creates an almost instant caramelized glaze if you add it to a hot saut` pan) and drizzle it over thick slices of winter squash or sweet potatoes and bake it until it's soft and sweet and melts in your mouth. It is there, in all its sweetness, to remind us that the seasons are changing, ever subtly.
This recipe requires only three ingredients so they all need to be good quality. A skillet is heated with just a touch of butter, thick slices of cooked ham are added and then glazed with maple syrup. The syrup and the butter caramelize into a sweet, gooey, thick glaze and make an almost candy-like coating on the meat. Serve for breakfast with fried eggs and thick slices of toast, or try it for dinner with the squash recipe below.
The best time to try this recipe is after you've baked a ham and have some leftover. You can also go the deli counter of your favorite store and ask them to give you some thick slices of their best ham.
Heat a medium-size skillet over moderate heat. Add the butter and let cook until melted and sizzling. Add the ham and cook 1 minute. Add half the syrup and let cook 2 minutes. Carefully flip the meat over and add the remaining syrup. Raise the heat to moderately-high and cook another 2 to 4 minutes, or until the syrup has thickened and is coating the ham. Flip the ham once more to make sure both sides are evenly coated with the maple glaze. Serve the ham and spoon any glaze remaining in the skillet on top. Serves 2.
Slices of bright orange winter squash are layered with sage and rosemary and baked with maple syrup, and a touch of heavy cream. The squash becomes tender and sweet, layered with the herbs and a sweet, creamy sauce. Serve with any holiday meat - ham, turkey, pork, or beef - or on its own with an early spring salad of asparagus and fresh greens, and good, crusty bread.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease the bottom of a medium size gratin dish or ovenproof skillet with one of the small cubes of butter. Layer the squash slices on top, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle the herbs evenly on the squash and pour the syrup and cream on top. Season liberally with the salt and pepper.
Place on the middle shelf of the oven and bake, basting the squash with the juices once or twice, for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until the squash feels tender when tested with a small, sharp knife. Remove from the heat and let sit for a few minutes before serving to let the juices settle. Serves 4 to 6.