Our maple sugaring experiment

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We've long checked out maple trees in our friend's yards and thought, "We should tap that." When we moved into our home, we looked at the tree in front of our house and thought, "We should tap that." Jokingly, sort of, because the tree isn't technically on our property. It's a city-owned street tree, tucked on that small space of grass between the sidewalk and the road. But it's full of nourishing (?) sap! One thing led to another, we bought this tree tapping kit and found ourselves standing out front of our home in February tapping that maple tree. To be clear, we live in a city. A small one, but still it's a city. I felt a little sheepish as we hung the metal bucket from our proud Norwegian maple. We hadn't even met many of our neighbors and here we were tapping a maple tree. Really cool, guys.

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This year's tough winter was made gentler through the simple act of checking our maple buckets each evening. I'd put on my Hunter boots, winter jacket and Chris' big snowboarding mittens and shyly check the sap yield before bringing it back to our sophisticated storage container. We ended up collecting about 9-10 gallons of sap in our first season. After accounting for some loss (leaky bucket!), I'd say we boiled down 8-9 gallons altogether.

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We didn't know what we were doing, and probably faked our way through many parts, as one should in such a situation. Knowing that 10 gallons of syrup would only yield around one quart of sap, we were in it just for some winter fun. We referred to these resources and tips:

There's a lot out there about maple tapping, but not as much for really small scale operations. As in, one lone tree in front of your house. I'd like to share a few of our experiences in case you should get the maple sugaring bug and not find these questions answered elsewhere.

Find a fat maple tree. If you're just in it for fun, which is the only good reason to do it at all, it doesn't particularly matter which kind of maple tree you have. Ours turned out to be a Norwegian maple, and it was good to us.

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If it's big enough, put two taps in it. We waited a week or two before adding the second tap and it dramatically increased our yield. If it's a particularly brutal winter, your sap might even freeze mid-stream. Delightful.

If you're using a somewhat public tree, one that's vulnerable to the whims of passersby, check and empty your buckets every night. Lessens the impact of any potential sabotage if only one day's yield is messed with versus a week.

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Rig up a storage container. We emptied our daily sap into a giant orange-but-very-classy Gatorade cooler that we stored in our yard. For much of the winter it was plenty cold enough to keep our sap from spoilage and, in fact, some nights it was cold enough to freeze it a little bit. As it got warmer we packed snow around the cooler and then threw in a few ice-filled bottles to make sure the sap kept cool.

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Figure out your boiling system. Our tiny maple sugaring operation involved two boils. We did one about 3 weeks in and then the other about 2-3 weeks later. Our set-up was basic:  a Coleman camping stove, my giant waterbath canning stockpot and a good book. We hooked our old camping stove up to a larger propane tank and let 'er rip. (Note, to do this you'll probably need this connector.) This was completely sufficient for our ultra-small-scale operation. We boiled about 3 gallons the first time and maybe 5-6 the second time, which were low enough volumes to do all in one batch in my stockpot. I'd say the boils took 4-5 hours? I'm not completely sure, as the first one was chilly enough that I spent most of it hopping around our garage and running inside for coffee refills, and the second one was warm enough that I was outside soaking up the sun and reading most of the time. For both boils, once it got down to about an inch or so of sap/syrup, I brought the pot inside to finish boiling on the stove until syrupy. We used a thermometer and also our own eyeballs to tell when it was done. Remember, hot syrup is runnier than cold syrup so don't overdo or burn it. 

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The finishing touches. We strained the first batch with a few layers of cheesecloth and it was still pretty cloudy, so the second time around we used muslin and the result was much prettier. Our sap yielded about a pint and a half of syrup- just enough for a few pancake breakfasts!

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The last thing you'll want to do is schedule an elaborate pancake breakfast and drench them in your homemade syrup. Don't skimp or save. Pour the golden elixir on! Bask in the glow of your very own homemade maple syrup. One thing is certain, after a season of tapping and boiling, you won't scoff at the market prices for maple syrup. It's worth every damn penny. If you want to save yourself the trouble, you can just buy a few cartons of maple water at Trader Joe's and pretend you got it from your street tree. Did you know maple water is the new thing? What a clever way around the long boiling process. We had some passersby stop to take photos and taste the sap and I absolutely loved it. Next winter I'm putting an informational sign on the tree. Free educational neighborhood fun.

Why running is great

This serves as much as a reminder for myself as for anyone else out there, but I've been thinking about why running is so cool. I'm not even running much these days, having temporarily swapped out most of my runs for a different workout routine recently. But I look forward to returning to a more solid running rhythm soon. Here's why:

It's accessible and affordable. You basically just need a good pair of sneakers and, if you're a lady, a really good sports bra. I like to tell myself that I also need top-of-the-line running clothes and accessories, but really you can skimp on those things if you need to. You don't need fancy equipment. You just go outside and run.

You can run with the champions. You'll likely never play basketball against... Michael Jordan (I'm sorry, I'm not really a sports person), right? I mean, maybe as some weird contest prize but you wouldn't actually be in the same, real game as him. Runners gotta run, and most races are open to elites and the rest of us. That guy that won Boston this year, Desisa? He's also won the Boilermaker 15K and I've run that race too. And Bizunesh Deba, the 3rd place runner at Boston this year and probable winner of last year's once they snatch the medal away from the probable doper that beat her? I ran the Freihofer's Run for Women with her last year (and set my 5K PR of 24:10). Was right behind her, just a few hundred people or so...

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The 2015 Boston winners both dropped out of past races, proving that anyone can have and come back from a bad day.

Everyone hurts, no matter how fast or slow you are. This might apply to every other sport, but I like running because everyone hurts a little bit. I mean, my favorite runs are the ones that don't really hurt, but if you're going for it at a race, it's nice to know that while I'm hurting in the middle of the pack, the Olympians are hurting at the front of the pack. It's equalizing. Read this great post-race interview from Shalane Flanagan, the fastest current American marathoner and 9th place finisher at Boston.

That zen life. Running can be so zen. It can also be totally crazy and intense. But if you settle into a comfortable pace on a nice little route, it's a form of meditation, I swear to it. And realizing that you just knocked out a meditation sesh and a run before work? That's the good stuff. And how about Meb?! What an inspiration and class act. First read this article that I found last year about his 2013 NYC Marathon, then read this post he wrote right before this year's Boston marathon, then look at this cute photo of his daughter's doing their homework while their dad preps for the race.

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Simplifying dinner

Sometimes we like to cook. Most of the time, perhaps. We'll research new recipes and collect our ingredients and make an evening out of it. I love those nights, the two of us puttering about in the kitchen with Fresh Air on the radio. I love the menus we create and how creative we let each other get with recipes. I love that, without meat, our dinners have broken out of the formulaic Protein, Starch & Side Vegetable scenario. It's a lot of fun.

Except when it isn't. Except when we don't feel like cooking, just eating. When it's too late or we're too tired or I Just Want To Sit On The Couch And Read This Book Please. In this case, we have a few options:

Skip dinner. Ok, that's not really an option, but maybe just snacking on some crackers? Sad story.

Order in. No shame in this! We do try to limit it though so we rarely order food on a weekday. Plus, it can end up taking just as long as the next option...

Simplify dinner. This is our newest challenge. Funny, right, that it's a challenge for us to simplify our dinner routine? Of course there's always the odd bowl of cereal that can be substituted for a proper dinner, but what I'm more interested in are the healthy, tasty meals that don't take a lot of time, too many ingredients or much brainpower. Our go-to list involves dinners which are basically made up of the same ingredients, just put together differently. Quesadillas/tacos/enchiladas (rogue veggies & beans in a tortilla), salad (rogue veggies, maybe beans, over greens), grain bowl (rogue veggies, beans over a whole grain).

We did not want to cook dinner last night, but we came up with something that was quick and easy and not a grilled cheese. I love grilled cheese but there is a limit to them, and I've been pushing up against that limit this winter. We put together a pearl couscous salad with sliced strawberries (impulse buy), corn (from the freezer), avocado (always), sliced almonds and hemp seeds (pantry staple) and a lime vinaigrette (limes were on hand to make margaritas).

We also fixed up a can of black beans, a la this deliciously easy creamy beans recipe adapted by Molly Wizenberg. I know the recipe doesn't look like much, but please give them a try. Here's all you do: Open a can of black beans, toss in a tablespoon of butter, a minced garlic clove and some shakes of hot sauce. Simmer it all together with the bean juices (yum) for about 30 minutes while you work on something else. MAGIC!

I think simplifying dinner goes hand in hand with a general need to let ourselves off the hook more. Not everything needs fixing, not every moment needs to be filled with a project, not every evening needs to be wildly productive and forward-leaning. Some dinners are masterpieces and some are pure sustenance. And how lucky are we that our most serious food concern is not about whether we can afford it, or how difficult it is to access it, but rather what do we feel like making each night?

Drinking horchata

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Two weeks ago, Chris was in warm New Orleans for work. A week ago, I was in warm Atlanta for work. Saturday we were both home and it was snowing. Yesterday it stayed in the 30s but was sunshine-y all day long. That tricked me into thinking it was actually springtime here. Maybe even summertime? It's been a long winter, ok? I'll take any semblance of warmth I can get.

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In honor of the sunshine, we made our first batch of horchata and then I lost my composure because it was so brilliantly refreshing and delicious. I know it may not sound refreshing because it is a creamy (non-dairy, but still) but believe me when I say that it was positively thirst-quenching. We were inspired by a few minutes of Martha Stewart Living we caught on PBS over the weekend and followed this recipe. It's not too thick or too sweet. You can add a splash of golden rum if you're feeling boozy, or you can have it as is, served on the rocks.

Instead of the cheesecloth, I'd recommend using a nut milk bag to make the straining process easier. We also cut down the sugar by half (using only 1/2 cup).

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And then we made crackers/cookies/biscuits! We took the leftover pulp, about 1 cup or so, added 2 tbsp of coconut oil, rolled it out to about 1/4 inch thick on a parchment lined baking sheet and baked it for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, flipping half way. Pro tip, to flip them we just topped the tray with another sheet of parchment and then stacked a second baking sheet on top and flipped it over like you would to get a layer or bundt cake out of the pan. Quicker than flipping each one over with a spatula. We sprinkled a bit of maple sugar, sea salt and cinnamon on top. They are a strange hybrid baked good, I'm not quite sure how to categorize them but I do know that a smear of chocolate pear jam on top is a good idea.

We also sautéed up some veggies for loaded quesadillas and blasted the Amy Winehouse station on Pandora, because one time a waitress put that station on during a private dinner and I was blown away by its unexpected perfection. Spring weather will be here soon, right? i think so. In the meantime, we are busying ourselves with our very own maple sap harvest right on our city street...

Go to the library

A quick public service announcement for the start of National Reading Month...

Visit your local library!

It's been brought to my attention that people aren't using their libraries as much as they should. You guys, you know you can borrow stuff for free, right? Books, e-books, audiobooks, DVDs... For free. It's a dream. I remember packing a backpack full of library books as a kid and thinking I had just scored the deal of the century.

I'm on a halfhearted quest to pare down my own personal library. It's halfhearted because I'm never going to get rid of my books completely, but I am trying to be more thoughtful about which books I keep. For an obsessive reader, that can be pretty tricky, but here are two things that make it easier:

My kindle. I was on the fence about a kindle for awhile, and you can read about my decision here. I'm happy to report that it has been an awesome investment. I read books on my Kindle more than I do in hardcopy. It's lightweight to carry around with me, I can read it in bed without keeping Chris up and I have instant access to a gazillion books. I love it, it's awesome, the end. And! It doesn't mean you can't still use the library...

The library. Libraries are goldmines. You just walk in, find a book you like, flash your library card and they let you walk out with the book. Did you also know that many libraries have an e-book collection? Our library does and I borrow from it all the time. The downside is that the collection is less comprehensive than the hardcopy collection and also the wait time is generally longer. But still, I can borrow and download free e-books on my Kindle.

Libraries have more than books. A true story:  My friend recently lent me season one of The Newsroom. Chris and I watched it and were totally hooked. But how to get our grubby hands on season two? It's not on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Guess where it was? The library, of course. Sitting there, waiting for us to watch it for free instead of do anything productive around the house.

Ok, that was my public service announcement. Rediscover your libraries. Borrow books and whatever else they have. Ours even has free museum passes that you can borrow. And all sorts of events and classes. For free.

ps- If you are serious about buying a Kindle, or other e-book reader, may I suggest that you get a Kindle Paperwhite or other reader that is solely a reader and not also a tablet? Tablets are great, but dedicated e-readers are better for reading. Much easier on the eyes, better battery life, no distractions. The regular Kindle is on sale for $59 right now, but the Paperwhite and fancy Voyager have built-in lights which is a huge bonus for me.

pps- Not sponsored by my library, Kindle or the Nerd Association of America.

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Photo: A shelf in our own personal library :)