Agave nectar (Recipe: grilled peaches with balsamic and granola)
A year ago, when I first started using agave nectar, I'd mention it in my cooking classes and be met with the dreaded uuhhh.
(Actually I can't even spell the sound a kitchen full of puzzled cooks makes. Something more gutteral, more visceral, more eeewww. The sound you hear when people watch a horror movie and a creature crawls out of a lagoon. Often accompanied by a no-please-no-not-me waving of the hands.)
What is thaaaaaaat?
You'd think I'd proposed cooking with innards, or Pepto Bismol, or eye of newt.
Maybe I should have told my students that tequila comes from the same plant.
Agave nectar has come a long way in our culinary consciousness, thanks to its low glycemic index status, and while I still get the occasional uuhhh, I get far more oh, cool, I've heard of that.
Agave nectar, or syrup as it's sometimes called, comes from the tall, spiky, blue agave plant, native to Mexico and resembling a giant aloe vera. When the plants are 7-10 years old, the core is removed. It's called the pina, because it looks like a 50-pound pineapple. The pina is then crushed to extract the sap inside.
The sap is heated for a long time at a low temperature and the carbohydrates break down into sugars -- specifically into a complex form of fructose called inulin, which resembles the sugar found naturally in fruits. Agave nectar is higher in fructose, which does not stimulate insulin secretion to the extent that other sugars do, and lower in glucose, so it's easier on your metabolism, preventing the familiar but unpleasant (and, for some, unhealthy) "sugar rush".
Sweeter than refined sugar, less viscous than honey, and with just 60 calories per tablespoon, agave nectar adds sweetness, solubility and moisture to baked goods and beverages like smoothies and iced tea. You can substitute agave for sugar or for honey in most recipes.
Agave nectar comes in two grades: light, which is flavor neutral; and amber, which tastes a bit like a thin maple syrup. Though I have both in the pantry, I reach more often for the light agave, though either will work in agave-sweetened chocolate ice cream, agave and lime salmon, black bean brownies, ginger-baked tofu with peanut sauce, sugar-free coleslaw, or in a margarita.
Now, if you go to a cooking class and the instructor mentions agave nectar, you won't be one of the eeewwws.
Grilled peaches with balsamic and granola
Easy, impressive, addictive. Make this with any stone fruit, or even with firm pears. Serves 6.
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup light agave nectar
6 peaches, halved, pits removed
1 Tbsp olive or canola oil
1/2 cup granola (homemade or storebought)
In a small, deep saucepan, heat the vinegar and agave nectar over medium-high heat until it begins to boil. Continue heating, watching carefully, for 10 minutes or until reduced by 3/4 to a thick (but still pourable) syrup.
Meanwhile, scoop out a bit of the insides of the peach to remove any bits of the pit.
Heat a stove-top grill pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, brush the cut side of each peach half with olive oil, and place cut side down on the grill pan. Do not move the peaches! Cook for 2 minutes or until nice grill marks appear. Remove peaches from the pan and place cut side up on individual serving plates.
When the syrup is reduced to desired consistency, drizzle it over the peaches. Top with a bit of granola, and serve immediately.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Pan-roasted glazed salmon
Gingered chicken and Napa cabbage salad
Honey-roasted beets with orange and thyme
Spiced lentils with squash and raisins