March marks the peak of maple-tapping season — a busy time for maple farmers as they hustle to collect and process the sap that syrup lovers crave. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin tapped 760,000 maple trees in 2015 to produce 215,000 gallons of maple syrup, making Wisconsin one of the top 10 maple producers in the country.
Nick Morse, head chef at Rye Restaurant & Lounge in Appleton and member of the Morse maple farming family of Vermont, says it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. Because of the amount of work and resources it takes to process sap, those who appreciate the sweet result aim to use it creatively and sustainably.
Cole Plamann, general manager at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub in Appleton, thinks it is important to understand and respect the process of syrup-making. “You don’t need to manipulate something so simple, yet so complex,” he says. “We let it be its own beautiful thing while allowing it to complement other items in our dishes.”
Restaurants in the Fox Cities have found innovative ways to use maple in their culinary offerings, allowing the syrup to accentuate and accompany some unexpected flavors.
The real and the savory
Chester V’s, a gastropub that recently opened in Oshkosh, prides itself on maintaining a menu that evolves with current food trends. According to Lyn Schuh, director of public relations, the gastropub’s chef has worked all over the country and is always in search of the next great thing.
Schuh believes that the wide availability of locally grown, minimally processed foods is one of the greater things about Wisconsin. Therefore, she explains, “when we have the maple syrup that people are making in their backyard, we take full advantage of using those in the cooking and in the mixed drinks.”
Ultimately, the emphasis on using pure, local products to produce trendy meals with broad appeal is what inspires the savory, maple-infused creations that Chester V’s serves.
For example, one of their staple sides, Baby Yukon Golds, combines golden potatoes and maple bacon. The restaurant also offers Maple Bourbon Flat Iron Steak, marinated in a maple and bourbon reduction with cauliflower purée and seasonal vegetables.
On Fridays during the fall and winter months, the restaurant also offers a maple bacon-wrapped salmon drizzled in balsamic vinaigrette, topped with pineapple mango chutney and accompanied with Brussel sprouts pan-fried in white wine and olive oil.
In keeping with their own philosophy of using real rather than artificial ingredients, Chester V’s makes their cocktails by hand rather than using pre-mixes. Maple syrup from the Somola Family Sugar Bush in Interwald, Wis. functions as a sweetener in cocktails like the “Sipper,” a drink made with serrano pepper-infused silver tequila and orange bitters, as well as their old fashioned, made with a muddled orange, angostura bitters and bourbon, and topped with the customer’s preference of sweet, sour or water.
“You don’t need artificial when you can use a tablespoon of pure maple syrup to add flavor and depth to something and still not have it be compromised,” adds Schuh.
Well-known for its frequent menu changes, Rye has made its mark by preparing all dishes from scratch using only local, seasonal ingredients. The maple syrup at Rye is as local as it gets, with Morse procuring his syrup from a second cousin who makes it in his own backyard in Shawano.
Right now, guests can enjoy Rye’s Maple-Glazed Duck, which is pan-roasted, topped with braised greens and bacon, finished with a maple glaze and served with fingerling potatoes. As the maple season continues, Morse says that Rye may re-introduce their Bacon-Wrapped Scallop appetizer, served with a house-made maple mustard sauce.
Sometimes, a dish will appear on the menu for a limited time as the chef gauges what diners will like. “I’ll run the specials for a week or two and see how the customers react to it,” states Morse. “If it works really well, I’ll put it on my menu.”
Rye’s reliance on ingredients that can be bought fresh daily translates into frequent menu modifications, requiring the willingness to experiment with whatever happens to be on hand and ensuring that the menu stays fresh and sustainable.
Houdini’s also takes sustainability seriously and aims to use maple in as many creative ways as possible so as not to waste the resource. According to Plamann, maple features prominently in Houdini’s brunch menu.
One popular brunch staple, Buttermilk Biscuits and Gravy, is finished with a healthy dose of sage-infused maple syrup, resulting in a sweet and salty appetizer.
But Plamann says one of Houdini’s favorite items is its Fried Brussel Sprouts, which are “tossed in a maple buffalo sauce and finished with smoked bacon and gorgonzola. You just can’t beat the sweet and spicy combination of the maple syrup and buffalo sauce!”
Houdini’s also makes maple syrup vinaigrette in-house. They drizzle the dressing onto their Smoked Duck Salad, a seasonal brunch creation made with arugula, kale, roasted butternut squash, dried cherries, walnuts, apples and blue cheese.
Plamann is gratified with the restaurant’s choice to use Anderson Maple Syrup, a brand based in Cumberland, Wis. He states, “Whenever you can use a local product, produced sustainably in a very traditional way, the end product is bound to be exciting as long as you respect the food.”
Enjoying the flavor
SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery in Appleton defines itself as a restaurant “passionate about food and people.” SAP creates meals from scratch, using local sources when possible and providing diners with a comfortable and familiar atmosphere.
“We feel very lucky to be a part of a community that has rallied around local businesses like our own who are also committed to sourcing amazing and quality items from our own home state,” says Nicole DeFranza, SAP’s co-owner.
DeFranza obtains the restaurant’s pure maple syrup from Sippl’s SAP Shake, located in Birnamwood, Wis. The product is used in both savory and sweet menu items, but guests who want to try their hand at cooking with maple can purchase bottles of syrup from SAP as well.
In the meantime, diners can satisfy their maple cravings by trying SAP’s house-made maple vinaigrette. The dressing pairs best with the signature SAP Salad, composed of mixed greens, shaved carrot and pickled red onion. For dessert, diners can order the SAP Cupcake — a cinnamon treat topped with maple cream cheese icing and candied bacon.
Truly, maple syrup is not just for pancakes. Whether used to balance out the spiciness of a dish, add depth of flavor to savory cuisine or sweeten cocktails and desserts, chefs in the Fox Cities take full advantage of the ample local maple supply by creating interesting and unexpected flavor combinations for seasonal offerings.
As the season inspires chefs this month, maple lovers will be surprised and delighted at the breadth of culinary creations that the syrup will enhance and complement.