Since I have taken up the business of growing, canning, and preparing all kinds of food from scratch, I have found that life becomes hectic at certain times of the year. Summertime is just mayhem, with berries and summer fruits demanding attention, as well as the garden crops coming in.
In the fall there is pork and venison sausage making, and apples – we spend several weeks brewing hard cider every year. That’s followed by the fermented goods (sauerkraut, kimchi, and the like).
Then the holiday season comes, with its cookies, pies and feasting, followed shortly thereafter by citrus fruits which just scream “I need to be a marmalade!”.
A short breather rolls around in January and February and then comes the biggest job of the year- maple sugaring. We started making our own maple syrup a few years ago, and I can assure you, it is quite a production. There is the tapping of trees and assembling the lines, chopping and stacking the wood, setting up the evaporator – all followed by a wild two or three weeks chasing your full sap buckets and tending the fire for 18 to 20-hour stretches at a time.
In between all the hard work, I fill my days with my “other” career as a home health nurse. I like to share my cooking experiences with the fantastic elderly folk of the North Country, who in turn love to tell me about how they acquired and preserved foods in the traditional Adirondack ways. This year, as I was relating some of my sugaring adventures, one incredibly sharp-minded 94-year-old lady shared this little story with me: “When I was a girl, every year we made maple syrup in a big iron cauldron that we used in the fall to boil the hogs in. We’d make a hundred gallons of syrup a year, and another 30 pounds of candy! I’d go around and gather the sap into these two big milk cans I had-you know what those are, don’t you? and I put the cans on to a sled to which I hitched this nanny goat I had trained to drive the sled. She’d bring that sled just anywhere so long as as she could see the dog was at a good distance away in front of her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t move an inch. Oh! That silly old goat just HATED that dog!”
Fortunately, as idyllic as that may seem, our sugaring experience is no where near as labor intensive. We work together with friends who contribute to the sap supply and the labor. We have lines off our tapped trees conveniently dispensing the sap into buckets just a few feet from where we boil, eliminating the need for a goat or a sled. And the buckets are made of plastic, a good deal lighter than great big metal milk cans. And of course there is the long, shallow evaporating pan, which makes the business of boiling the thin sap down to a thick syrup a great deal faster than a massive cast iron cauldron. But it is still hard work, day in, and day out.
As early spring rolls in, there’s a break from harvesting and preserving and opportunity to just sit back and admire the fruits of our labor- row upon row of gleaming amber pint and quart jars full of smoky-sweet delicious maple syrup. I use it in more ways than I can think of – mixed in with plain Greek yogurt, on top of oatmeal, drizzled over baked tofu, as a sweetener and binder for homemade granola bars, in place of brown sugar in marinades and baked goods of all sorts, mixed with mustard as glaze for pork loin for a quick evening meal, in baked beans, and more.
Cooking up a ham also provides a great opportunity to crack open one of the jars and really go to town. Rather than baking ham, I like to braise ham in a mixture of water and maple syrup on top of the stove for 2-3 hours. This creates a ham that is far more tender and juicy. You still get the nice crispy outside by glazing the ham at the end of the braising process and placing it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Best of all, you are left with a pot full of ham stock that makes the base for a pea soup (or potato & ham) that is beyond compare.
Braised Ham with Orange-Mustard-Maple Glaze
1 (7-8 lb) bone-in ham, butt or shank-end
6 cups water
1-2 cups maple syrup (I use a quart jar as I have plenty on hand. If you don’t have a large supply, use at minimum 1 cup)
1 cup orange marmalade (peach or apricot would also be good)
1/2 cup maple syrup
2-3 tbsps prepared mustard, depending on how spicy you like it (I prefer a grainy brown mustard, but any will do)
Place ham, cut side down in a deep stock pot. Add water and syrup. Bring to a boil. Once it reaches boiling, cover pot and reduce heat to lowest setting and gently simmer ham, until tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove lid, turn off heat and allow to cool.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
When ham is cool enough to handle, remove from pot. Reserve liquid. Cut off rind and excess fat, leaving just a thin layer. Transfer ham to roasting pan. Whisk together glaze ingredients in a small bowl, and spoon over ham. You may not use it all- set any extra you have aside. Add a cup of the reserved cooking liquid to the roasting pan. Bake, basting ham with liquid in bottom of pan occasionally, until ham is glazed and sauce is bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes. I frequently add a bit more glaze about 10 minutes before the roasting is complete.