Tales from the Sugar Bush: Friedman Takes a Trip to the Heart of Vermont’s Maple Kingdom

by Laura Barley

The maple syrup harvest has been a tradition in New England for centuries, and this March six Friedman students had the chance to help fellow student Hannah Kitchel’s family in their spring ritual

 

Maple tree vermont

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Hundreds of trees make up the sugar bush forest that connects the lives of a few devoted Vermont families. The small town of Danville, tucked neatly in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is where second-year AFE student Hannah Kitchel grew up and where her parents continue to manage the neighboring maple stand. In a New England tradition that spans centuries and crosses cultures, the small group of families have collectively invested time and equipment to harvest syrup each spring to last them through the year.

A stand of roughly 50 trees – the sugar bush – all had metal buckets placed waist-high, secured by inch-long taps that drip sap as the weather warms. Historically, sugaring season in Vermont has started the first weekend of March, but the recent shift in warmer weather patterns has meant that sugaring season now begins a few weeks earlier, in late February.

“I remember sugar season used to start in March after [the] town meeting. They said starting in February was a mistake because there would be a long freeze which would mean re-tapping,” explains Fred Kitchel, Hannah’s father and one of the main harvesters in the group. “Now, a February start is common.”

Despite the cozy seasonal celebration that maple syrup receives each fall, the hallmark of sugaring season is this special blend of warmer days and cooler nights that signals trees to prepare for spring. The melted snow seeps into their roots, carries their stored sugars up the trunks to send life into new buds – though not before we take a piece of the magic for ourselves.

 

Maple sap freshly tapped vermont

This is what sap looks like when it first comes out of a maple tree (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

We headed through the sugar bush armed with five-gallon buckets, excited to see what the trees had produced since the day prior, when the Kitchels last harvested. I’ve always loved imagining trees as straws, sucking water up from the earth to replenish their thirsty leaves; even though you may imagine sap to be a thick, brown, glue-like liquid, the sap that started to drip from the taps was in fact mostly water, clear and smooth. It turns out that a lot of sap is required to make syrup of any justifiable quantity. These particular sugar maples boast a 40:1 retention rate, meaning that the 19 five-gallon buckets we harvested would result in roughly 2.5 gallons of maple syrup in all.

 

aluminum labyrinth for making maple syrup

Photo: Laura Barley

 

Though the families try to share the workload as equally as possible and even manage a worklog together, the core of the operation is at Betty Lou’s (yes, wonderfully, that really happens to be her name) place just up the road. Once the buckets were loaded in the truck, we drove up to her beautiful yellow three-story farmhouse, which had a shed in the back devoted specifically for distilling the sap. What filled most of the inside was a shiny, aluminum that we first had to wash with vinegar, tilting it back and forth to ensure the utmost cleanliness.

Once we’d cleaned the labyrinth, we poured in the first bucket of sap and lit the gas burner that lay underneath. Over the course of a few hours the heat would evaporate off much of the water, leaving a slightly thicker, tanner substance. This was still not the final product – for that we had to head inside to Betty Lou’s kitchen, the laboratory of a woman devoted to the process of perfection.

 

concentrating pure maple syrup fancy

Betty Lou in the thralls of her work (Photo: Laura Barley) 

 

The kitchen was small but meticulously organized. Several burners heated pots of the sap in stages, which Betty Lou frenetically checked every few minutes for exactly the right characteristics. She whipped out what she called a hydrometer, a tool to test the specific buoyancy and density of the syrup’s sugar content, and after a few rounds of checking the hydrometer in small batches, Betty Lou was finally satisfied.

 

Filtering fancy maple syrup

A simple, cone-like apparatus filters the syrup one last time (Photo: Laura Barley)

 

Next the syrup entered one final round of filtering, designed to cleanse and thicken it. And though the process was precise, not all maple syrup is created equally. There is a set of USDA standards that outlines a gradient of maple syrup based on color, sweetness, and viscosity, which depend entirely upon the weather and the trees. Because it was still fairly cold in Danville that first week of March, the syrup we made was delightfully termed ‘Fancy’, the type of Grade A syrup that tends to arrive earliest in the season before the trees release too much sugar. Fancy, also known as ‘Delicate’ syrup denotes a lighter, sweeter syrup than the darker Grade B varieties typically found at the grocery store.

By the end of the afternoon, the kitchen was full of sweet steam and prolonged excitement – most of us had never made syrup before and had spent much of the last hour daydreaming about the buckwheat pancakes and Vermont we’d lather it on later that night. Finally, the syrup was ready to be poured into jars and sent home with us. Our bounty was a small fraction of the gift that the Kitchel family and Vermont’s sugar maples would afford this year, and to them I owe many moments of gastronomic happiness and endless thanks.

 

Pure vermont maple syrup

Some of Betty Lou’s finest products (Photo courtesy of the author)

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE student who loves to eat any food practically any time. She recently fell in love with the rich food culture that Vermont has to offer, and dreams of a time when she has her own land complete with dairy cows and maple trees.

Spring for Fresh Herbs

by April Dupee

After spending a long New England winter bundled up and hibernating from the cold, spring is finally here! As the days get longer, the ground begins to thaw and trees start to bloom. This is the perfect time to lighten up your cooking with fresh ingredients.

Next time you’re in the grocery store or strolling through a farmers’ market, grab some fresh herbs to brighten up any dish. Not only do these small greens instantly elevate your meal with vibrant flavor, they also provide numerous nutritional benefits. Using fresh herbs can reduce sodium and fat by enhancing flavor without the need for excess salt or butter. In addition, many herbs provide important nutrients, such as vitamins A, K, and C, and minerals such as potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Herbs also have a long history of both culinary and medicinal use, and many have been touted for their protective effect against various diseases. Research suggests this may be due to polyphenols, a large group of compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial properties. However, more research is needed to establish therapeutic effects of dietary herbs, especially because they are usually consumed in small quantities. Nonetheless, fresh herbs are still an effortless way to lighten up your meals and boost your nutrition this spring.

How to Use Fresh Herbs

Don’t worry about fresh herbs rotting away in the back of your fridge after just one recipe. These greens can be used in a variety of dishes, including dips, soups, salads and much more.

Fresh basil healthy dinner fresh herbs

Image: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  1. Basil 

Rich in nutrients and packed with antioxidants, basil has been researched for its anti-inflammatory, anti-aging,anti-microbial, and cancer fighting properties. One study found that basil even has strong antibacterial activity against widespread antibiotic resistant strains. And this popular herb isn’t just for your favorite Italian dishes. In addition to pesto, pizza, and pasta, basil can also be used in sauces, dressings, and salads. Mix things up with this Mediterranean chopped salad featuring tomatoes, peppers, feta, and basil.

 

Fresh parsley mediterranean meal

Image: Kalyn Denny

 

  1. Parsley

Just half a cup of freshly chopped parsley contains about 470% of your daily value for vitamin K. This versatile herb’s subtle yet fresh flavor is the perfect complement to any dish. Add it to soups, pasta, vegetable dishes, and salads. Next time you’re packing lunch, consider this protein-rich white bean salad with tuna and parsley.

 

Fresh chives in olive oil

Image: Hirsheimer Hamilton

  1. Chives

Chives belong to the allium genus, which also includes garlic, scallions, onions, and leeks. These vegetables contain allicin, an organic compound that may improve cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and reducing bad cholesterol. The bright onion flavor of chives is delicious in dips, creamy sauces, baked potatoes, eggs, or quesadillas. Perk up your salads with this simple healthy chive vinaigrette.

 

Fresh cilantro bowl

Image: Lee Hersh

  1. Cilantro

High in vitamins A and K and full of citrusy flavor, cilantro can be used for more than topping your tacos or mixing into guacamole. Add this herb to curries, Asian cuisine, and meat dishes. Meal-prep with this cilantro lime chicken recipe for a satisfying week night meal.

 

Fresh mint cucumber salad

Image: Jennifer Segal

  1. Mint

Studies have shown that peppermint oil extracted from mint may aid in digestion and help those with irritable bowel syndrome by relaxing muscles in your digestive tract and promoting the flow of bile to help you digest more quickly. Use this refreshing herb in both sweet and savory dishes, such as sauces, salads, or desserts. For an easy side dish or snack, slice up this cooling cucumber and mint salad recipe.

 

Fresh dill potato salad

Image: Faith Durand

  1. Dill

The fragrant flavor of dill is delightful with fish, lamb, sour cream dressings, cheeses, cucumbers, and eggs. If you have leftover dill lying in your fridge, then whip up this simple recipe for potato salad with yogurt, arugula, and dill.

 

How to Keep Herbs Fresh

To keep your herbs fresh and flavorful for as long as possible, it’s important to keep them moist and reduce exposure to oxygen. Try these storage tips next time you buy a bunch.

  • Soft Herbs: For soft herbs with tender stems and leaves, such as parsley and cilantro, trim the ends of the stems, fill a glass or jar with one inch of cool water, and place them in the glass. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and keep refrigerated. Change the water every couple of days for the best results.
  • Hard Herbs: For hard herbs with woody stems and leaves, such as chives and rosemary, wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel and store in a zip-lock bag in the fridge.

 

Grow Your Own

Use the coming spring as inspiration to start your own simple herb garden. Growing your own herbs ensures you always have a fresh supply on hand and you can snip off only as much as you need at a time. It’s easy! All you need is a sunny spot outside or on your kitchen counter. Pick out herb seedlings and plant each herb in 8-inch pots with potting soil. Get ready to cook!

 

April Dupee is a first-year student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communications, and Behavior Change program and RD-to-be. She loves trying new recipes and hopes to improve her green thumb with an herb garden this spring.

Pumpkin Spice: Fad or Fallacy?

by Sara Scinto

Would you want a watery pumpkin pie? A savory pumpkin spice latte? How about a stringy pumpkin bread? Yeah, I wouldn’t either. I adore pumpkin spice everything as much as the next person (pumpkin is actually my favorite food), but are pumpkin and spices actually in these products?

My mom and I enjoying real pumpkin whoopie pies

There has been an explosion of pumpkin spice products rolling out for fall in recent years and each season it starts sooner (apparently as soon as July in 2017). Fall flavors are creeping into summer because the consumer demand is there and food companies want in on the profits that have soared in the last 5 years. Tiffany Hsu from The New York Times article purports pumpkin spice sales “…surged 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, then 12 percent the next year, then 10 percent in 2015 and in 2016”.

Unfortunately, not all pumpkin spice products have either pumpkin or spice blends in them. Sugar is first on the ingredient list of both Pumpkin Spice Oreos® and Kraft’s Jet-Puffed® Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows; neither contain actual pumpkin NOR spices, unless they are hidden in the natural or artificial flavorings. However they do contain artificial colors to mimic that beautiful pumpkin orange. According to Wikipedia, pumpkin pie spice is usually “a blend of ground cinnamonnutmeggingercloves, and sometimes allspice”, but commercial pumpkin spice products typically include chemical compounds to simulate the taste of pumpkin pie. You are not only getting fooled by the absence of real pumpkin and spices, but you are not able to reap any of the nutritional benefits of these foods. Pumpkin is a rich source of carotenoids, vitamin C, and fiber; nutmeg contains multiple B vitamins; cinnamon is full of antioxidants; and ginger provides the essential minerals magnesium and copper. If you’d like to create your own pumpkin pie spice, here are the proportions recommended by Julie R. Thomson at the Huffington Post:

Natural pumpkin pie spice blend

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 5 teaspoons ginger
  • 1 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cloves

 

 

 

Seemingly healthier stores like Trader Joe’s are no exception to the pumpkin spice fallacy. Their Pumpkin Shaped Frosted Sugar Cookies and Chocolate Mousse Pumpkins don’t include an ounce of pumpkin (they are just pumpkin shaped). And although Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s and Gluten Free Pumpkin Bread & Muffin Baking Mix do contain pumpkin and “spices” on their respective ingredient lists, sugar comes first. This is something to be cognizant of if your body doesn’t handle sugar well.

Pumpkin may not be as straightforward as it seems either. As it turns out, the canned pumpkin that is so heavily used in pumpkin pies and other fall goodies often contains one or more types of winter squash! For example, the company Libby’s uses a Dickinson pumpkin, which is more closely related to a butternut squash than a pumpkin you would find in your typical patch. Dickinson pumpkins and butternut squash are both part of the Cucurbita moschata species, while a traditional jack-o’-lantern pumpkin belongs to the Cucurbita pepo species.

Before you start a false advertising class lawsuit, a couple things should be clarified. Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins actually taste pretty bad and would make a terrible pumpkin pie. They’re stringy, watery, and not that sweet. This is why canned pumpkin companies use a variety of winter squashes that are more vibrant in color, “sweeter, fleshier and creamier” than a classic carving pumpkin. It just tastes and looks better. And these companies aren’t technically breaking any rules, since the FDA has a quite lenient definition of pumpkin, which includes any “firm-shelled, golden-fleshed, sweet squash”.

The reason pumpkin spice mania has taken America by storm is that sugary pumpkin spice products taste good! Food companies know this and give consumers what they want, which may not always be the best for the health of our bodies or our food system. But do not fear: we can still enjoy all the delicious pumpkin spice goodness by being more aware of ingredients and making our own treats.

Here are some of my all-time favorite recipes that have real pumpkin and/or spice blends in them:

1-Bowl Pumpkin Bread (V, GF)

1-Bowl Pumpkin Bread

DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup (can substitute stevia for sugar or reduce sugar)

DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup

Overnight, Slow Cooker, Pumpkin Pie Steel-Cut Oatmeal (GF, can be made V)

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

Pumpkin Curry (GF)

Paleo Pumpkin Curry

Pumpkin Dream Cake (for very special occasions)

Pumpkin Dream Cake

Lastly, a pro tip for making your own pumpkin pancakes: substitute pumpkin puree for some liquid (whether oil or water) and shake some pumpkin pie spice into the batter. Play around with how much you substitute until it reaches a consistency that you like-there’s no wrong way to do it! The end product will be a dense and delicious pancake that pairs wonderfully with some maple syrup and/or berry topping.

Sara Scinto is a second-year NICBC student, avid coffee drinker, runner, triathlete, and yogi. She has a love for rainbows and all things food/nutrition related. During the fall, there is a 100% chance she has made some kind of pumpkin food within the last week. You can find her on Instagram @saras_colorfull_life.

 

Five Veggies to Try This Fall

by Katelyn Castro

With the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, you may be missing the summer barbeques with crisp corn on the cob, grilled zucchini, and fresh tomato-mozzarella-basil salads. But, don’t fill your grocery cart with canned or frozen veggies just yet! Fall vegetables can be just as satisfying, especially when you have some delicious recipes to try.

“Eat your veggies!” We’ve probably all been told this before, whether it was from our doctor, our parents, or some health nut on a juice cleanse. Despite the known health benefits of vegetables, 87% of Americans do not meet the recommended daily serving of vegetables (2 ½ cups), according to a national report published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vegetables are expensive. They don’t taste good. I don’t know how to prepare them… As a nutrition student, these are the most common answers I hear when asking patients, friends, and family their reason for not eating vegetables. As a hummus-and-veggie lover, I am determined to change vegetables’ bad reputation! Believe it or not, vegetables can be affordable and they can taste pretty darn delicious if you know when to buy them and how to prepare them.

With a variety of fresh and local produce available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores during the fall season, now is the perfect time to start eating more veggies. Seasonal vegetables are not only more tasty and nutrient-rich since they are picked at peak harvest time, but they are also usually less expensive than out-of-season produce.

Here are five seasonal vegetables to try this fall, along with some cooking preparation tips. Whether you like your veggies soft or crunchy, savory or sweet, the following recipes offer something for everyone’s palate.

1- Cauliflower

Due to its mild taste, cauliflower is extremely versatile, making it an easy vegetable to incorporate into almost any dish ranging from pizza and casseroles to rice and pasta dishes. As a cruciferous vegetable, cauliflower adds bulk and fiber to meals without significantly altering flavor. Try steaming cauliflower, then mash it with potatoes, use it to make a pizza crust, or bake it with macaroni and cheese. One cup of steamed cauliflower provides three grams of fiber and 92% of the daily value of Vitamin C in only 29 calories!

Recipes to try:

Photos from recipes above

Photos from recipes above

2- Winter Squash

Although named for its ability to stay hardy throughout the winter months, winter squash is actually harvested during the fall. Pumpkin may be the most popular type of winter squash, but acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squash are other fall varieties that can be just as flavorful. The sweet flavor and dense texture make winter squash a great addition to soups, salads, lasagnas, and even desserts. Don’t let the tough exterior or hefty size of winter squash intimidate you! Most varieties can be easily sliced and baked, requiring little effort to prepare. One cup of cooked and cubed winter squash is a great source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. However, to really reap the benefits of winter squash, don’t forget to eat the seeds! Winter squash seeds are one of the top sources of magnesium and zinc, which are both important nutrients for metabolism and immunity. One ounce of roasted seeds provides 35% of the daily value of magnesium and 20% of the daily value of zinc.

Recipes to try:

Photos from recipes above

Photos from recipes above

3- Carrots

Yes, they may be available all year round, but carrots are at their best in the fall. As a hardy vegetable, carrots are a convenient snack to pack and eat on-the-go with hummus or a yogurt-ranch dip. Adding sliced or shredded carrots into a salad or wrap are other easy ways to add more veggies to your diet. If cooking carrots, try roasting them with some healthy oil, like olive oil, or steaming them with a few drops of water. By steaming or roasting, you’ll preserve the water-soluble vitamins and minerals in carrots, which can be lost if cooked in a lot of water. One cup of raw carrots (or ½ cup steamed or roasted) has more than 100% of the daily value for Vitamin A, an important nutrient for eye and skin health.

Recipes to try:

Photos from recipes above

Photos from recipes above

4- Cabbage

Cabbage is another vegetable that seems to be in grocery stores all year round. However, cabbage is truly at its peak in the fall, with red cabbage, green cabbage, and bok choy most commonly available. In addition to being a staple in coleslaw, cabbage is also a great veggie to add to green salads, sandwiches, and wraps for a light and crunchy flavor. For a softer texture, try roasting or sautéing cabbage as part of a savory or sweet side dish. Although the nutritional value varies depending on the type of cabbage, all varieties are a great source of fiber and many vitamins and minerals. One cup of chopped green cabbage has 85% of the daily value of Vitamin K, an important nutrient for blood clotting and bone health. In contrast, one cup of chopped red cabbage provides a great source of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Red cabbage is also rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which give cabbage its deep purple color.

Recipes to try:

Photos from recipes above

Photos from recipes above

5- Rutabaga

This list would not be complete without one oddball! Rutabaga may not be the prettiest of vegetables with its bulbous shape and hairy roots, but this root vegetable deserves a chance. Rutabaga’s mild flavor, slightly sweeter than turnip, makes it a great substitution or addition to potato dishes. As a versatile vegetable, rutabaga can be mashed like potatoes, puréed into soups, or roasted with herbs alongside other root vegetables. One cup of cooked rutabaga provides three grams of fiber, 16% of the daily value of potassium, and 53% of the daily value of Vitamin C.

Recipes to try:

Photos from recipes above

Photos from recipes above

 

Looking for other veggies to try during this fall season? Check out this chart for a list of produce with their typical harvest months in specific towns and cities within Massachusetts. To find a farmers’ market near you, use this map to search for open markets based on location and preferred type of produce.

Katelyn Castro is a second-year student in the DI/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. She is a food science geek who loves experimenting with different seasonal veggies in the kitchen and forcing her friends and family to try her healthy concoctions.