Minnesota’s most prolific cookbook team is back in the kitchen.
During the past six years, Beth Dooley (she writes) and Mette Nielsen (she photographs) created “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook,” “The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook” and “Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves From a Northern Kitchen.” Nielsen also provided images for “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” the James Beard award-winning partnership of Dooley with chef Sean Sherman. Dooley and Nielsen also collaborate on “Seasonal Kitchen,” their weekly cooking column in the Star Tribune’s Taste section.
Their latest cookbook, “Sweet Nature” (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95), continues their fascination with locally raised foods. Page after beautifully illustrated page illuminates the virtues of honey and maple syrup, finding ingenious, boundary-pushing ways of incorporating the two sweeteners into a wide range of recipes.
In a recent conversation, Dooley discussed her affection for maple sugar, the origins and uses of maple vinegar and why buckwheat honey just might take the place of molasses.
Q: Aside from their familiar uses, what makes maple syrup and honey such important pantry staples?
A: A lot of the work that Mette and I do is looking at our terroir and asking, “What makes our region special?” We walk over so much food that’s grown here that can really be celebrated, that’s delicious in and of itself. Typical of Minnesota, we often don’t pay much attention to it. These two sweeteners really reflect our terroir. We’re seeing that with the whole artisan honey movement, with single-source honeys that, when you start paying attention, have a quite different range of flavors. The same with maple, although it has a different bandwidth because it’s sap that has to be boiled down, so the flavor profiles themselves don’t quite cover that same span. But there are a lot of things that maple producers can do to make their product more interesting, and they’re getting really savvy about it, like holding it in bourbon barrels, so the syrup picks up those flavors. As pantry items, honey and maple syrup are bringing cooks a broader range of flavors to play with, and when you start paying attention to those flavors, you begin to extend the possibilities of what you can do.
Q: Are we in honey country?
A: Minnesota has always been a big honey producing region. Last time I looked at the statistics, we were the No. 1 or No. 2 honey producer in the entire country. Most of it is processed and shipped out of state, like most of our food, right? We have great conditions for bees, and thanks to the work of Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota around bee health, we have a lot of attention paid to pollinators. And Wisconsin is No. 2 — behind New England — in maple syrup production, and Minnesota is really part of that.
Q: You write a lot about maple sugar. What is it?
A: It’s just maple syrup that has been completely evaporated, and ground up. You can buy it at the co-op.
Q: How does it compare to granulated sugar?
A: Maple sugar is more expensive. I can’t remember the exact price per pound, but it’s maybe three or four times as much as white sugar. It’s pricey. But frankly, I like that, because it reminds me to use less. And it reminds me that it’s food. We dump sugar into everything, without really thinking about it. Maple sugar creates this sense that you don’t want to use tons of it at a time. You don’t have to go with that full cup of maple sugar. You can start with maybe three-quarters of a cup of sugar, and see how it goes. Usually, it works out just fine. I’ve been using it with all of my baking. You’re not changing the texture all that much, but you’re cutting back on the sweetness level, and you’re adding in another layer of flavor. It’s milder than brown sugar.
Q: Until I read your book, I’d never heard of maple vinegar. What can you tell me about it?
A: I learned about it from Sean. We were doing this deep dive on where indigenous people were getting their flavors. He was exploring mineral salts, and that’s when he said that there must have been something sour, something acidic, beyond chokecherries and other sour fruits. We went through all of these old papers and we finally came across some information about a product called sour sap. It was from the first or the last run of the maple sap. They have the lowest sugar content — it wasn’t worth boiling it down into syrup — so they’d set it out, and allow it to ferment. It became this sour thing that they would use to glaze meats, or give things another layer of sour flavor.
Q: Is it widely available?
A: No. There are a couple of places in Vermont and Maine that are making it, and you can find it online. Stephen Horner at the Mill City Farmers Market is starting to make it, and he may have it this year. He gave me a bottle, and it’s milder than the ones that I’ve had, but it’s really lovely. It reminds me of one of those fruit vinegars, only milder. The really good ones have been aged in barrels, so they taste almost like a balsamic. It’s really cool stuff.
Q: How do you develop recipes? I’m thinking of the book’s vegetable curry dish, for example, which incorporates honey.
A: I’m always out, snapping pictures on my iPhone or tasting things, and thinking, “Wow, I wonder if I can make this at home?” With recipes, there’s really nothing new under the sun. Between the two of us, Mette and I probably have two libraries worth of cookbooks. We’ll sit down and brainstorm about what we feel like eating, or what is easy and delicious. Or we’ll think about taking something complicated and making it super simple. When we began to dig into maple and honey, we began to ask, “What do they do beyond making things sweet, and how can we use their flavors to extend what’s going on in a particular traditional dish?” We knew that curry always has some kind of sweet component to it, because it bounces up the heat, and enhances the earthiness of the dish.
Q: Are there recipes in the book that you’ve been making for years?
A: The rum-raisin ice cream is Mette’s mother’s recipe. It’s something they always had on their birthdays. One of the drink recipes is an old family recipe of Mette’s; it’s a very traditional Danish recipe. This is really a collaborative book. Mette has lots of ideas, and she drew from her own heritage. The Danes are so smart about how they do so much with so little, and how they make flavors pop.
Q: Why are honey and maple syrup so amenable in vinaigrettes and condiments?
A: In part, it’s because they’re more viscous than white sugar, so they add texture to things. And again, they have these range of flavor profiles. A really dark maple syrup or a buckwheat honey performs very much like molasses. Both have a slight bitter edge to them, which means they can add a lot to, say, a barbecue sauce.
Q: One aspect of your recipes that I always appreciate is their built-in versatility. For example, the book features a sweet potato soufflé, and you suggest pumpkin or butternut squash as other possibilities. Where does that sense of flexibility come from?
A: It’s because I’m always out of things, and I hate running to the store. Look, that’s how it was for centuries. No one had exactly what they needed. My “aha” moment was when I joined a CSA [community-supported agriculture] — it was at least 35 years ago — and I would look at the vegetables in the box and I would go, “Huh, that’s not in the Bon Appétit recipe, so what do I do now?” It was out of necessity that I changed how I thought about what was available to me.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib