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Birch syrup is just what it sounds like: a syrup made from the sap of birch trees, in the same way that maple syrup is made from maple sap, through a process of boiling and evaporation. But it takes twice as much birch sap as maple sap to make a gallon of syrup, and the season is half as long, making the finished product not only rare, but very expensive—often $25 or more for eight ounces.
Nicole Pederson of Found Kitchen & Social House, challenged by Rootstock's Mike Simmons to create a dish with birch syrup, had some trouble sourcing the ingredient. It's produced in April, so by February not many distributors have any left. But she located a bottle, and says its flavor is completely different than that of maple syrup. "The taste of birch syrup is much more savory. It's got a nice minerality to it, a little bit of acidity. I think it lends itself much better than maple syrup to savory applications."
Pederson thought the flavor would pair well with a fatty meat, and settled on smoked pork collar with a birch syrup glaze. She accidentally discovered while trying to caramelize the syrup how quickly it burns; it's high in fructose, which burns at a lower temperature than sucrose (the main sugar in maple syrup). To solve the problem, she added pork stock to the pan before the syrup and cooked it gently.
To brine the pork, Pederson used birch beer—made from birch sap and much easier to find than birch syrup—as well as salt, pepper, herbs, and a little birch syrup. After brining it for 12 hours, she cold-smoked it for another ten, noting that the brining and smoking gives it a flavor similar to ham. She cut off a two-inch-thick slice, seared it on all sides, and then added pork stock and birch syrup to the pan before finishing it in the oven.
While the pork cooked, Pederson caramelized onions with sherry vinegar, pork stock, and birch syrup (much like the glaze for the pork, but the vinegar made it a gastrique), and sauteed cabbage with boiled potatoes and thyme. Once the pork finished cooking, she finished the sauce with some butter, then served it with the onions, cabbage, and potatoes.
Pederson detected the birch syrup flavor in the dish, but "it's not intensely specific," she says. "It just has a really nice, round, caramel flavor, and a nice spice."
Pederson has challenged Brian Huston of Boltwood to create a dish with ajwain seed, which is often used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Pederson describes the ingredient as having a "really bitter celery flavor."
Birch-syrup glazed pork collar and candied onions
1 two-pound pork collar, skin on
3 qts water
1 qt birch beer
1 c salt
½ c birch syrup
2 T black peppercorns, toasted
2 T green coriander, toasted
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 fresh bay leaves, torn
4 sprigs fresh savory
Combine all ingredients except pork collar in a nonreactive stainless steel pot, place over medium heat, stir occasionally, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cool down. Once the mixture is completely cool, pour it over the pork collar and refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove from brine, dry, and cold-smoke for ten hours.
Birch syrup glaze
2 c birch syrup
4 c pork stock
¼ c sherry vinegar
2 T honey
Thyme, fresh bay leaves
Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer and reduce by a quarter.
½ c sherry vinegar
½ c apple vinegar
1 c birch syrup
Cut onions in half and sear, then add all other ingredients and simmer until slightly reduced. Place in a 400-degree oven and cook until tender, basting every three to four minutes.
Cut the pork collar into two-inch thick slices, and in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat sear on all sides about three minutes until golden brown. Add four ounces of the birch syrup glaze to the hot saute pan and place in 400-degree oven. After about four minutes baste the pork shoulder with the sauce from the pan, continue to cook and baste for eight to 12 more minutes or until the pork is cooked to medium. If the glaze begins to reduce too far add more to the pan. (The trick is for it to be just reduced enough and to not burn.)
Once the pork is cooked to medium, remove from the pan and mount the glaze with one ounce of cold butter. Let rest and then serve with the candied onions.