Chocolate, chiles, tomatoes…Mexico has been good to us. Not that our European forebears returned the favor. They basically ravaged and pillaged, though they did figure out how to ferment the native agave plant’s sap into tequila. Now the agave is providing us another gift, just as alluring if a bit more sedate.
The plant’s sap, the Aztec’s sweetener of choice, is fast becoming an “It” ingredient in American kitchens. Filtered and heated into nectar, it’s available in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties, depending on the degree and length of heating. The best nectar derives from the Blue agave, as does tequila, but other species, the Maguey in particular, run a close second. Initially the purview of health-food adherents and vegans (who eschew bee-produced honey), agave nectar is now used as a glaze for meats and fish, in pastry batters and marinades, and its raw formulation has attained vaunted status in the tea service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills 914-366-9600).
Liz Gagnon, executive chef at Nature’s Temptations (890 Rte 35, Cross River 914-763-5643) is an ardent fan. Light agave nectar infuses her pulled-pork marinade, the frosting for her carrot cake, and sweetens her fruit smoothies and multi-grain hot breakfast cereal. Flavor is one reason, health another. “You’re getting sweetness without elevating blood sugar,” she says. “Agave nectar is relatively unprocessed, and is one-and-a-half times the sweetness of white sugar. And unlike honey, its glycemic index is low.” Also unlike honey, it dissolves easily in cold liquid. Of course, nothing’s perfect. Agave nectar burns quickly, so watch those pan sauces and set your oven 25 degrees lower when baking with it.
Nature’s Temptations sells raw, light, and amber agave varieties, as do other nutrition-oriented shops, but the nectar is slowly seeping into the mainstream. You can pick up both light and amber types at Whole Foods, and raw Blue agave at DeCicco’s in Ardsley. And this time around, there’s no pillaging required.