- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We Americans generally confine our use of maple syrup to breakfast pancakes and waffles.

In Quebec, source of most of the world’s maple syrup, it is served in hundreds of deliciously creative ways: drizzled on fried chicken; mixed into salad dressings, soups, smoothies; and even added to pizza sauce. Little wonder that Canada’s flag features a maple leaf.

The province of Quebec produces about 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup, about 6.5 million gallons a year. Vermont is the largest producer in the United States, generating about 450,000 gallons yearly.

“Quebec has a long maple history,” explains Jacques Fortin of Canadian Maple Delights Museum and Boutique. “When the first settlers arrived in Canada, they learned from the area’s Native Americans how to tap into the trees to collect its watery sap and how to boil it down to a lush, thick syrup.”

“If you’ve only had ‘imitation’ syrup, which is mostly just flavored corn syrup, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise,” says Joan Kimball of www.DoMorewithMaple.com, a Quebec Ministry of Agriculture Web site promoting creative uses for maple syrup.

“One taste of real maple syrup, and you’ll never go back to imitation,” she says. “It’s a natural, nutritious product with no artificial coloring or additives that adds a golden hue, sweetness and a delightful depth of flavor to almost any dish.

“Quebec makes many delicious maple products like maple butter [whipped syrup], maple sugar, flakes and chips [the syrup boiled down to remove all moisture], maple vinegar [a fermented pure maple product] and even maple jelly. All are great to cook with.”

Visiting Quebec City, a gorgeous tourist destination and home to some innovative chefs, I decided to seek advice on new ways to enjoy this sweet amber delight.

“We French Canadians all grow up on maple syrup,” says chef Francois Blais of Restaurant Panache in the lovely hotel Auberge Saint-Antoine.

“The classic Quebec City dish is duck with maple syrup, but I cook with it for entrees of meat - ham, chicken, turkey and especially venison.” His favorite source of maple syrup is the hotel owner’s mother, who produces it from trees in her own backyard.

Christian Lemelin, the award-winning chef of the Quebec City hot spot Toast, says: “Maple is a wonderfully versatile food, delicious in desserts but also in savory foods. I especially like it with seafood. It adds a perfect touch of rich sweetness to sea bass, trout and especially shrimp.”

Chef Jean-Luc Boulay of famed Quebec City restaurant Le Saint-Amour “can’t eat crepes or ham without it.” He uses maple syrup in place of sugar. “It is a little more expensive, but it gives a special twist to all sorts of beverages, like tea, hot chocolate and coffee,” he says. “It blends quickly into cold beverages, so it’s ideal in iced tea and lemonade and also cocktails in place of sugar syrup.”

Mr. Boulay uses maple syrup to create a sauce for sliced duck breast and as a way to give caramel ized onions an even richer flavor and color. His children love it drizzled on vanilla ice cream.

The sugaring-off season, the period when maple sap is collected and reduced into syrup, is quite a festive time in and around Quebec City. Each year for six to eight weeks, from mid-February through April, Quebec City’s many maple orchards host visitors for demonstrations of how maple water is collected and boiled into syrup.

Sugaring events include special maple-centric French Canadian meals, sleigh rides through maple groves, snowshoeing, and free samples of a special candy made by pouring hot maple syrup on the snow, a treat called “tire d’erable” or drawing with maple syrup.

“Maple syrup on snow is a sweet memory for all Quebecois,” Mr. Boulay of Saint-Amour restaurant says. “Eating tire d’erable in Quebec should be on everyone’s lifetime to-do list.”

Maple-marinated barbecue shrimp

This recipe is adapted from chef Daniel LaGarde (www.domorewithmaple.com). Makes 4 servings.

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined (see note)

2 tablespoons maple vinegar

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

1 1/2 tablespoons minced assorted herbs such as thyme, basil, parsley

Juice of 1 lemon

1 small red onion, minced

4 wooden skewers or lemon grass stalks

Salt and pepper

Toss the shrimp, vinegar, oil, maple syrup, mustard, herbs, lemon juice and onion in a bowl until well-combined. Cover with plastic wrap and marinade in the refrigerator overnight or for 24 hours.

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill or broiler. Place 4 shrimp onto each of the 4 skewers or lemon grass stalks and grill until firm, about 1 minute per side. Brush on additional marinade during cooking.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Note: You can easily substitute other fish for the shrimp in this recipe. Salmon and tuna are wonderful with maple syrup.

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