Tag Archives: food

You can make maple syrup in a slow cooker

I tried to find out if anyone had successfully done this, and couldn’t find verification on the internet. So this is just to confirm: yes, you can boil maple sap into syrup in a slow cooker / crock pot. This is my third year doing it.

I’m not sure if the cost of the electricity makes this actually cheaper than buying maple syrup from the store, but for me it’s a fun project. Outdoor fires are not practical or legal in the city where I live, and indoor boiling creates more steam than I’m up for. So for me, the slow cooker has worked well.

One of many guides about how to tap trees and collect sap.

I verified that two of my trees were maples. (One produced barely any sap – I think it’s a Norway maple which apparently doesn’t drip well. Now I just tap the other.) I got some taps from Amazon or somewhere. You need a drill with the right size bit to tap your tree.

Once the weather is right (below freezing at night and above freezing in the day), it’s time to collect sap. Typically this is in January – March depending on where you live and the particular year. I used this app the first year, and I don’t anymore but I just want to share my joy that it is called the Sap Tap App.

I use well-washed gallon milk jugs to collect and store the sap. I keep them in my fridge, or outside if it’s not too warm – you don’t want the collected sap sitting around at warm temperatures for days or it gets nasty.

Last year I showed Lily’s kindergarten class how syrup is made, and we tapped this tree at the school. The jug got played with, knocked over, etc so it’s good we had backup sap from my tree. 0/10 do not recommend schoolyards as a place to collect food products, other than for demonstration purposes.

The process of turning watery sap sap into thick syrup is basically reducing it about to 1/40th its volume by evaporating the water out of it. Traditionally you boil large pans or pots of sap at a high temperature, which puts a lot of steam into your house if you do it inside and requires some amount of watching to be sure it’s not boiled down too much about about to burn. The slow cooker method is, well, slower.

I fill my slow cooker with as much sap as it will hold, and keep it on high constantly for several days. Leave the lid off – remember the point is for the water to leave the pot. It won’t boil, but will stay hot and gradually reduce. Add more sap about once a day. You don’t want it to burn overnight, so be sure it’s at least half full if you’re leaving it on overnight. After a few days, many gallons of sap will be about half a gallon of amber-colored fluid. I store that in the fridge in a glass jar and repeat with fresh sap. Once the sap has stopped running or I’m tired of having the slow cooker occupying the counter, it’s time to finish the syrup as per these directions. You can do this in the slow cooker or in a pot on the stove. Cook it until it’s thick like syrup. It will try to boil over if you’re doing this on the stove.

The finished syrup keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Here’s a jar from last year that we’re still finishing up:


Three vegan desserts

I’m not easily satisfied when it comes to food substitutions, but here are three I’m happy with (e.g. things I would voluntarily make vegan

Things with puff pastry: A lot of frozen puff pastry in a normal grocery store is vegan. Try it with chocolate and nuts or as apple pie.

Poached pears: there are a million recipes for different syrups and sauces to do these in. Here’s a simple version.

Chocolate mousse: two-ingredient chocolate mousse lives up to its hype. You truly do need at least 70% cocoa solids or it will not firm up – I like the big bars of bittersweet chocolate from Trader Joe’s. You can chill the mousse in wine glasses or teacups. Or pour it into a baked piecrust for a chocolate mousse pie – I like a graham cracker or nut crust (use oil or vegan margarine instead of butter if you want to keep it vegan).

Note that the pears and mousse don’t have flour, meaning they are kosher for Passover! And gluten-free! The chocolate pie can be too, if you use a nut crust.




Why chosen diets are not the same as unchosen diets

Recently I was part of a discussion about what kinds of food should be offered at a conference. It’s tricky to balance needs like “I care deeply about animals and don’t want to see their corpses served at dinner” and “I have medical needs that don’t allow me to be vegetarian,” and I still don’t really know what the community should do.

The argument was made: “Vegans and vegetarians have to take special care to find or bring food they can eat when they go places. Other people can do that too.”

But a medically-required diet is not the same as a chosen diet (e.g. kosher, vegetarian). After watching friends and family members go through medical problems, I see this pretty differently than I did a few years ago. Some things that may go along with medically-required diet:

  • The medical problem itself, with accompanying pain, fatigue, and other disruptions.
  • The part-time or full-time job that is handling a serious health condition: doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, haranguing your insurance company, keeping prescriptions filled, taking a bewildering array of medications at the right time each day, injecting yourself with medications.
  • Change in body image due to surgical scars, wearing a medication pump, etc.
  • Loss of ability to do things you enjoy (like swimming at the beach, because your medication makes you burn so easily, or dancing, because of fatigue and pain).
  • Loss of partners who could not handle your medical situation.
  • Loss of ability to conceive, bear, or care for a child.
  • Loss of job opportunities because of health needs or taking time off of work to care for your health.
  • Knowledge that your lifespan may be cut short by your illness and/or treatments for the illness.

For someone who has chosen a particular diet, not being able to find food you can eat can be painful: it may mean your friends don’t respect your choices or your moral system. But it is different than having dietary restrictions you didn’t choose, and which are associated with a lot of other painful things happening in your life.

I have been a cook who rolled my eyes at dietary requests the kitchen recieved. I regret this now, because having to cook for someone who can’t eat gluten, corn, or any sugars is nowhere near as annoying as being a person who can’t eat gluten, corn, or any sugars. Even when a dietary need is pretty clearly psychological (e.g. able to eat one shape of pasta but not other shapes), arguing with people about this is really never helpful.

Summer dinner party menu

I often struggle to come up with a menu for a mixed omni/vegetarian/vegan crowd, which is what you tend to get at Effective Altruism dinners. I try to publish the successes.



Everything is vegan and gluten-free except the key lime pie, but I think it comes off as light and summery rather than oppressively vegan.

The food is served cold and can be prepped in advance except the soup, which could still be done in advance and just heated and garnished at the last minute. If you’re still working on the spring rolls when guests arrive, people like helping assemble them. This took longer than I thought, about 90 seconds per roll, including waiting for the wrappers to soak and finding room for trays as we filled them.

Total cost: about $90 in groceries for 18 people, or $5/person.

A previous menu.

Liquid diet for G-tubes

A family member has been on a liquid diet for a few months due to needing a gastronomy venting tube (also called a g-tube).  Food goes in by eating as usual, but must leave via a 4.67mm tube.  In this case, getting enough nutrition is not an issue because the person gets supplemental nutrition through TPN.  Eating is only for pleasure, but how do you make a liquid diet pleasurable?

When we got that news, I couldn’t find good advice for what foods would work.  The hospital dietitian was unhelpful, as was the internet.  The existing advice is usually for weight loss or for people with jaw problems who just can’t chew.

I decided to write up some things that we have found viable.

  • Buy a good blender.  You will use it a lot.  We like our Ninja-brand one.
  • Pasta does not seem to get thin enough no matter how much you blend it (though I think it might if you cooked it a long time first.)
  • You can puree a lot of something and freeze it in ice cube trays.  Keep the cubes in bags in the freezer, then thaw however many you want.
  • Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods sell cartons of good pureed soups.

Foods that work:

  • Whatever other people are having for dinner, pureed (e.g. chicken, rice, and spinach with broth, water, or milk to thin it. )
  • Pureed soups, curries
  • Purees of foods with distinctive spices (falafel, apparently, still tastes falafel-y without the texture)
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Yogurt
  • Flan/creme caramel
  • Pudding
  • Ice cream/sorbet/Italian ice
  • Popsicles
  • Smoothies/milkshakes
  • Coffee/tea
  • Alcohol (drains out quickly enough that it doesn’t have much effect, but check with doctor about liver function first)

Foods that are not liquid, but seem to work okay if you chew a lot and drink fluid with them:

  • Avocado
  • White bread/toast
  • Cheese
  • Hummus
  • Baba ganoush
  • Soft cookies and cakes
  • Saltines

Birthday cake ideas (again, chew a lot and drink a lot of fluid):

  • Tiramisu
  • Icebox cake
  • Cheesecake
  • Soft regular cake
  • Ice cream sundaes with whipped cream, syrups/sauces, fruit purees

Passover on a liquid diet:

  • Matzo ball soup, pureed
  • Gefilte fish, pureed with broth
  • Charoset, pureed with apple juice or water
  • Borsht


  • Mashed potatoes, thinned with milk
  • Turkey, pureed with broth or gravy
  • Gravy
  • Cranberry jelly
  • Stuffing would probably work if you chew it well

A pinterest board with more ideas.


For a long time I understood nutrition to be “what you do to avoid getting fat.”  A few years ago I realized that my body gravitates toward a low weight, so I could eat literally anything I wanted and not gain weight.   In fact, I tried to gain weight and failed.

More recently, I’ve started to realize that there are other bad things that can happen to me: mostly diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

I’ve also realized that the data on long-term nutrition is much less clear than anyone would like.  Does cholesterol give you heart disease?  Unclear.  Does salt give you high blood pressure?  Unclear.  An ideal study would randomly assign people to a particular diet and follow them over the course of their lifetimes, but it’s too hard to run that kind of study.  So we have population studies instead, which indicate that any number of things might be good for you.  The Mediterranean countries of Europe have low rates of heart disease, which has been attributed to lots of plants, olive oil, and wine.  But the Inuit have a rate of heart disease similar to other people despite eating a diet made largely of fish and blubber with almost no plant material.

Part of my shifting sense of nutrition is an effect of who I spend time with.  When I was hanging out with vegans, I was sure that eggs were bad for me.  Now that I have friends who literally consider bacon a health food, cholesterol doesn’t seem as scary.  But I shouldn’t just be averaging my friends’ eating habits to create some kind of middle way.

For a while I was going on Michael Pollan’s advice which was to basically eat like your great-grandparents did (“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  He advocates staying away from processed food and weird chemicals).

But what they ate doesn’t sound healthier than what I eat. Laura Ingalls Wilder describes a meal of the 1860s:

“Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans.  He at the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth.  He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy.  He ate the ham.  He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust.   He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin.  Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist.  And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles.  He felt very comfortable inside.  Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

Plenty of cholesterol, salt, sugar, and refined starches there.  It did also have some vegetables, which a meal at Burger King probably wouldn’t.

Probably the only thing all traditional cultures have in common is not diet, but exercise.  Almanzo Wilder could demolish a dinner that size because he had been working on a farm all day.  When it comes to explaining modern disease rates, sedentary lifestyles are probably way more dangerous than red dye #40.

The other thing that people seem to agree on is that sugar is bad for you, and specifically a lot of sugar hitting your bloodstream at once is bad for you.  I’m not sure the kind of sugar matters that much, though.  People are willing to pay extra money for “sugar in the raw”, which as far as I can tell is just browner than regular sugar and not any better for you. They also get creeped out by high-fructose corn syrup, although they’re perfectly happy to get the same fructose in the form of an apple.

Lately I’ve been paying more attention to glycemic index, which is the rate at which foods increase your blood sugar.  It’s not just “sugar” that does it, but starchy foods that quickly break down into sugars — flour, potatoes, rice.  Bizarrely, the glycemic index of foods doesn’t just depend on their ingredients — wheat in the form of pasta is apparently better for you than in the form of bread.  And other foods, like fats and acids, can slow down your sugar spike.

So the sugar in Almanzo’s jams and pies (and the starch in his potatoes and flour) was tempered by the fat in the pork and butter and the vinegar in the pickles.  Maybe not such a bad meal after all.