Friday, May 22, 2009

Making Honey While The Sun Shines

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
May 2009

Beekeeping has always fascinated me. Maybe the allure of beekeeping is nothing more than another opportunity to make a fashion statement, just like my idea of gardening in a big straw hat with matching wellies and gloves. I have to admit, the big hats with all that netting, the big white suits and the big gloves do add a certain cachet to the whole beekeeper mystique—I mean, aside from the fear of being stung, of course. Very Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, don’t you think?

Dan's backyard beehive and his beekeeping equipment.

Believe it or not, until recently I wasn’t really too fond of honey. The taste reminded me of the smell of cigarette tobacco—not that I have ever eaten cigarette tobacco! While everyone else was enjoying a sweet, pleasant taste, I was having some sort of olfactory - taste bud disconnect. Not pleasant at all! Still, I have always been drawn to bees and the mysteries of life inside the hive.

Dan is all suited up and ready to prepare the hive for new bees.

Alas, beekeeping is yet another outdoor activity; and unless those big puffy beekeeper suits come with a personal air-conditioning system, I’ll never be a beekeeper. However, providence has smiled upon me again and I have to look no farther than my own neighborhood to find, not one, but two real beekeepers. Serendipity has provided me with the vicarious thrill of beekeeping in the forms of Dan and Kenny, who also happen to be two of my favorite gardeners!

The hive is made of stacking drawers that hold the frames of wax honeycomb.

Baklava was the first food I ever tasted that made me appreciate how good honey can be. Some flavors are just meant to go together—like nuts and honey! All it took was one bite of a friend’s homemade baklava at one Easter dinner and I was captivated by the sublime perfection of crispy, gooey, crunchy sweetness. I took this to mean there was good honey out there, and good ways to eat it, so I went on a quest for more.

Before long, I was enjoying honey varieties flavored with the subtle complexities imparted by the nectar of various plants. Sure enough, bees pollinating and drinking nectar from certain flowers made truly delicious honey. There was lavender honey, orange blossom honey, clover honey, raspberry honey and tupelo honey. Honey often can be identified by the specific flowers visited by the honeybees and is labeled as such. Others, with less distinct flavors, or those produced from a variety of flowers, are blended to produce most of the honey we buy in the supermarket. Specialty flavors of honey can usually be found in gourmet stores, coffee and teashops, and ethnic markets. My palate is happy now and pleased with the sweet flavor of many delicious kinds of honey. And wherever they find their honey, our local bees make some excellent honey, too.

The lovely taste of honey does not require sophisticated baking skills to bring out its goodness. Honey paired with cheese is another flavor match made in heaven, especially with fresh or dried fruits or bread. Good bleu cheese spread on warm focaccia and drizzled with lavender honey can transport you to Provence or Tuscany. A bowl of juicy Spring strawberries, yogurt and a big spoonful of honey is perfect for breakfast or dessert or both if it’s May and the strawberries are ripe for picking.

Not only has honey been around forever, but it also has many attributes that have made it a valuable commodity to man throughout history. Honey will last indefinitely. The sugars in honey do not need to be broken down once it is eaten so it is easily digestible. Research has proven that honey also has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.

Many allergy sufferers also claim that regularly eating local honey relieves their sniffly, sneezey symptoms, though it should be pointed out that those who eat honey for allergies should begin doing so in very small amounts and watch carefully for any adverse reactions.

Honey should not be fed to infants before the age of 12 months! Their immune systems are not sufficiently developed to handle some of the spores and toxins found in raw honey, even though honey is safe for adults. The best plan is to avoid all honey for children until they reach the age of one year.

Local honey is available at the Carbondale Farmers’ Market and several other locations in our area, just in case you don’t have a neighborhood apiculturist, as beekeepers are known. If you do find honey labeled by a specific flower, be sure to give it a try. I like special honey varieties added to my tea or served with cheese, fruit and nuts so I can enjoy the delicious subtle flavors.

The long shelf life means you can buy honey and store it for long periods of time. Refrigeration is not necessary; just keep it in a cool place, out of direct sunlight. Crystallization may cause honey to appear cloudy or make it difficult to pour, but it does not harm the honey in any way. Place the container in some warm water or heat it very briefly in the microwave to dissolve the crystals. Overheating may affect the flavor.

For those of you who love its rich, sweet taste, it is no surprise that there are so many good recipes for baked goods and other foods that use honey. Most baking recipes can be adapted to substitute honey in place of sugar by cutting the amount by one-third to one-half. It’s also a good idea to reduce the temperature of the oven by 25 degrees when substituting honey for other sweeteners in baked goods. Coating the measuring cup with vegetable oil or spray will help the honey pour easily. And honey also helps baked goods stay fresh longer.

The recipes this month can all be made with any type of honey. If you shop at the Farmers’ Market, you will probably be able to find local strawberries toward the end of this month. Sweet Vidalia onions from Georgia should be in markets soon so how about a batch of onion rings with honey mustard dipping sauce. For those who love the sweet goodness of honey with fiber, try the recipe below for Granola Bars. And last, but not least, one of my favorite treats of all time is the Honey Pecan Squares, adapted from the Barefoot Contessa. I think you will love what honey does for all these foods. And remember, it’s good for you, too!

While there is still time this month, why not do your part for and plant something for your neighborhood bees to turn into honey. Somewhere a beekeeper will appreciate it and you may get a sweet treat in return for lending a helping hand to the neighborhood bees and their essential work in the food chain.

3 c. carrots, baby or sliced whole
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. honey
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Cook carrots until tender and drain. Stir remaining ingredients in with warm carrots until coated. Salt to taste. Makes 6 servings.

1 large Vidalia onion, cut into 1/4-in. slices
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
1 c. milk, or as needed
1 c. Panko crumbs (or more)
1 qt. oil for frying (or more)

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or deep fryer to 365 degrees. Separate the onion slices into rings and set aside. In a large zip bag, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Place the onion slices into the flour mixture and shake until they are all coated; remove onion rings and set aside. Add the egg and milk into the zip bag with the flour mixture and squeeze to blend. Return the floured rings to the bag of coating – just a few at a time – and shake to coat all the onion rings. Place the coated rings on a wire rack over a foil covered baking sheet to drain until the batter stops dripping – clean up will be easier. Pour the Panko crumbs onto a plate or shallow dish. Place rings one at a time into the Panko crumbs. Turn and sprinkle with Panko to coat evenly. Give each a hard tap as you remove it from the crumbs. The coating should cling very well. Repeat with remaining rings.
Deep fry the rings, a few at a time, for 2 - 3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve with
Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce.

1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. lemon juice

Mix all ingredients. Cover and chill in refrigerator overnight. Serve as a dipping sauce or sandwich spread.

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