Up here in Vermont, our temperatures have begun rising above freezing during the day and falling below 32 degrees at night. That means it’s sugaring season! Though specialized technology and expensive equipment have been developed to help large sugar-makers boost their production of luxurious maple syrup, it’s possible to make maple syrup in your back yard without spending much. One thing is consistent for all scales of syrup production: it takes a lot of time!
It is early spring. I’m itching to spend more time outside, am no longer excited by our local ingredients stored or preserved many months ago, and won’t start my garden for several months. I find that tapping, collecting sap, and experimenting with this sweet ingredient in the kitchen is exactly how I’d like to spend my spare time.
Learn more by reading some of the posts I wrote during past sugaring seasons:
I’ve been brewing kombucha for a few years now and always have a jug of it in the fridge. I think it’s a healthy, delicious, and refreshing alternative to soda or juice. All the information you’d ever want to know about kombucha (and maybe more) is available at www.kombuchakamp.com, so I won’t go into too many details.
With elderberry syrup and kombucha sharing shelf space on the door of our refrigerator, I was bound to discover how well they mix sooner or later. Mmmmm. The flavors in both drinks are quite concentrated, so I like to add a few ice cubes or some club soda. If you’re looking for a great alcoholic drink, dry mixing kombucha, elderberry syrup, and club soda with gin.
This year I missed having sap to cook with, so I decided to try to tap a maple in our yard without buying any supplies. Buckets or milk jugs are pretty easy to find around the house. What I really needed was a spile, or tap. Using a method common before metal was widely available, I hollowed out the inside of a sumac branch.
Staghorn sumac is a common small tree in eastern North America. It has big red clusters of seeds that have a great sour flavor and can be used to make tea or a locally sourced substitute for lemonade. The centers of its branches are very pithy, making them easy to hollow out and make tubing or spouts.
It’s that time of year when many people are wondering: is that achy throat, dripping nose or sneeze a sign of sickness to come? Whenever I feel like I might be getting sick, I turn to Chicken Soup and Elderberry Syrup. Both have long histories of promoting wellness, with more and more rigorous studies proving their immune boosting and nutritious qualities. Chicken broth freezes well and elderberry syrup can be kept in the fridge for months. Keep some on hand all fall and winter to keep everyone in your household healthy!
Chicken Broth: Bone broths are healing and nutritious, and they’re very simple to make. Making broth does take a while – it’s the perfect activity for a cozy day at home. The warm steam will make your whole house smell delicious. You can use a chicken carcass or parts of the chicken that your local butcher would otherwise throw away. Feet are especially great for making sure your broth has plenty of gelatin! The pictures below show a broth I made with chicken necks and feet.
-Chicken bones with some meat and skin
-Onion, garlic, carrots and/or celery
-Sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and any other favorite green herbs
-4 quarts of water
-Sea salt and pepper to taste
-Optional: 2 T. vinegar
This works great in a crock pot or on the stove. If you want to get even more minerals out of the bones, soak chicken parts, water, and vinegar for 30 minutes before cooking. Next, bring all ingredients – excluding the green herbs and seasoning – to a boil. I use the old limp veggies from the back of my refrigerator to flavor the broth, so the exact amounts and ingredients change every time. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 3 to 6 hours. Strain to remove solids. I compost the veggies because they loose most their flavor. Pick the meat off the bones. Put the broth back into your pot and add picked meat, green herbs, and any additional vegetables you want. Bring back to a boil and season to taste.
Elderberry Ginger Syrup: Elderberry season is over, so you may have to save this one for next year. It’s great to have in the back of the fridge at this time of year to help keep your family from getting sick.
-2 c. Elderberries
-3 ½ c. Water
-2 T. Ginger Root
-1 t. Cinnamon Powder
-½ c.+ Honey (to taste and preserve)
Bring all ingredients but honey to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered to reduce for about ½ hour. Cool slightly, smash, and strain. Add honey while warm. Refrigerate to store.
I learned an incredible amount from coordinating The Somerville Maple Syrup Project, but in the end, too many of the lessons were about testing my limits and endurance. This year, however, I was thrilled to be in Vermont and be able to bring a short and sweet week of Maple Madness to my after school students.
What I learned?: Any group of kids with access to sugar maples can participate in fun sugaring activities without requiring any money or superhero feats from the adults coordinating the program. If you work with a group of young students, I strongly encourage you to build in maple programming next March! Here’s what to consider:
Materials:Taps, hooks, buckets, and covers (about 4 each); cordless drill with a 7/16″ bit, hammer, measuring tape, and several food grade 5 gallon buckets. In Vermont, many sugar makers have upgraded to smaller taps or tubing, rather than the older buckets and taps. Make friends with local sugar makers and your cafeteria director! A chat with your local maple producers association or neighbors and friends who tap trees may reward you with valuable tips and information. What random supplies do they have laying around? Cafeteria directors usually get some foods in 5 gallon buckets. They also have large stoves with hoods and broiler pans, which will come in handy in the boiling phase.
Boiling: With permission from your cafeteria staff, boil sap exposing the most surface area possible. We boiled in pans on the stove top, with the hood fan on to pull steam up and away. In 2.5 hours, we’d reduced 5 gallons to 5 cups! Our final product was very sweet and mapley. If we’d reduced it further to 2.5 cups, we’d have official maple syrup.
Tasting! and Learning Extensions: We did a group taste test of sap (I brought some to a quick boil to sanitize it), carbonated sap (made with a Soda Stream Machine), and our final boiled almost-syrup product. We then generated “description words” (or adjectives) that described the smell, taste, feel, and look of sap vs. syrup. We’ll use these words to write poems for our next After School Newsletter!
Refer to my Maple Syruping with Kids blog entry to get ideas for games, activities, and curriculum connections. In the end, we had way more sap than we could drink or boil, leaving plenty to play with. Check out different experimental recipes from my Cooking with Maple Sap post.