March can be an ugly month in the northeast, all mud and slush and wind—some compare it to a lion, but I think of it more like cranky old Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. Like him, it conceals a current of sweetness beneath its bluster.
It's hard to predict exact dates for maple sugaring season because, as this farmer explains, it all depends on the weather. March usually casts the strongest spell, a combination of warm spring days and still-freezing nights that wakes up the sap in sugar maples while keeping their buds in bed.
Weather also influences the sugar content of the sap, which affects the amount and color of the final product. Syrup is classified by letter grades—A, B, and C, with several subcategories in between—from lightest to darkest. The lightest, "grade A fancy," tends to fetch the highest prices, but they're all good.
So good, in fact, that although I set out to write only a "five ways to eat" post, I've decided to give you an entire alphabet of maple recipe ideas! (Humor me. I'm from Vermont; maple madness is endemic.)
A: Asparagus with maple-tahini dressing.
B: Braised Brussels sprouts in maple-mustard glaze.
C: Caramel corn, maple-style. Or cupcakes frosted with maple-cream cheese.
D. Maple-roasted duck, with cherry compote.
E. Even eggnog tastes better with maple.
F. Fish, as in maple-glazed salmon or pan-seared maple trout.
G. Ginger-maple cocktail. (Or ginger-maple anything, really.)
H. Hot wings with maple-chipotle sauce. Sweet plus spicy = mmm.
I. If you can't get sugar on snow (see "S"), maple ice cream is the next best thing. (Which is kind of like saying you should "settle" for a date with Hugh Jackman if George Clooney is unavailable.)
J. Jicama salad with chicory, pecans and maple dressing.
K. Kabocha squash and celery root soup with maple syrup and brown butter.
L. Legumes. Baked beans get all the glory, but lentils also work well with maple.
M. Maple mashes. As in mashed squash, rutabaga, or sweet potatoes and bourbon.
N. Nuts, candy-coated.
O. Oatmeal with maple syrup and cream was my favorite pre-skiing breakfast as a kid. Oats and maple also pair nicely in scones, cookies or even beer.
P. Pomegranate pancakes! Or pork. Maple-dijon glazed ham, maple-marinated pork roulade, maple pork chops—go whole hog, and top it off with a maple-bacon cupcake.
Q. Quince, poached and then baked with maple syrup, cloves and anise.
R. Rhubarb desserts, like apple-rhubarb crumble or maple rhubarb pie.
S. Sugar on Snow. I've already raved about the fabulous candy that forms when heat-thickened maple syrup meets a cold dish of snow (or crushed ice, if you're nervous about eating snow).
T. Turnips, roasted with maple and cardamom.
U. Upside-down cake with pears and maple syrup.
V. Maple vinaigrette tossed with baby spinach, candied pecans and blue cheese crumbles makes an easy, yet elegant salad.
W. Well, waffles with syrup, obviously. Runner-up: Maple wine.
X. Um.... Xanthan gum in gluten-free pancakes, maybe?
Y. Yams with maple syrup and pecans.
Z. Zucchini, sauteed with a splash of syrup, or baked into maple zucchini bread.