It's not often we get to advocate eating sugar in this column. Often, it's the opposite: fruits and veggies. But sugar cane is finally in season, the last big seasonal sweet bomb before we hit the big citrus harvests in December. It's an uncommon sight, and it's a pain to cut unless you have a mean machete hand, but our childhood memories of a farmer peeling a short stalk for us to quietly enjoy are a fond remembrance.
It's a water-intensive crop which does great in tropical climes (think Hawaii) and ok here in California. Sugar cane is a power crop. You can produce multiple food products from its juice, from plain sugar to molasses to rum. The spent fibers can be fermented into biofuel. What's left is little more than cellulose, which can go right back into the soil. You can find your own cane at Walker Farms (they'll peel you some to try) and the more elusive black sugar cane at Central Valley Farms at the Hollywood market. But what do you do with it? We enlisted some help for a few ideas.
Peeling sugar cane is essential unless you have a cane juicer that can chew up the fibrous outer skin without issue. Hack (yes, hack) the cane into smaller, manageable lengths and strip off the outer skin with a sharp paring knife or chef's knife. The inside is pale, sometimes yellow, and very fibrous, but it's sliceable, like a dense ginger. In its raw, uncrushed form, it makes a flavorful substrate for ground meat. Cane in this format isn't so much eatable as it is chewable. Think lamb or chicken lollipops, sweet on the inside and a salty on the outside. Infuse vodka with it for a sweet and grassy liqueur.
Where you cut the cane is also important. Gravity collects a lot of the sweetest juice at the base, while up top the cane has more of the grassy flavor of the nearby leaves.
Planning to try making your own sugar? We talked to Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, about his recent attempts to make his own sugar from the cane grown on his property. Like any good survivalist, zombies or no, Brooks is a big fan of DIY and self-reliance. If you've read The Zombie Survival Guide, you know his attention to detail is hyper-focused and borderline obsessive. We asked him why he tried to make his own sugar syrup.
"Partly because of the time I spent in the Caribbean. An emotional connection. And partly for the sheer challenge. Nothing tastes sweeter than the product of my own labor," Brooks says.
Sweet or not, it requires "a full day's work for something I could buy for a few bucks at Whole Foods." It's still impressive, and it's nice to know that we can make our own sugar in the event that zombies cut us off from supermarkets.
You will need a grinder, so either borrow one or peel your stalks thoroughly and put them through a sturdy juicer.
Homemade Sugar Cane Syrup
By: Max Brooks
Yields: Lots of incredulity, some pride and some syrup. Quantity is based on how much juice you are able to extract from your cane, so mileage may vary. In general, for every gallon of juice, you will get about a cup of sugar syrup.
Tip: Cut your sugar cane as close to the root as possible if you are harvesting your own, or select your market cane with good, solid bottom sections.
1. Cut down to 1-2 foot strips then cut those strips in half so they pass through the grinder more easily. Or fully peel small sections and put through a heavy-duty juicer.
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2. Grind and collect the raw juice.
3. Strain juice through a cheese cloth and pour into a stock pot.
4. Heat the juice to a rolling boil until you get a thick syrup. This will take hours. Note from Max: "And all the while, sift sift sift! Sift out every last particle of impurities until it's clear. That takes the most labor and patience."
5. Pour into a bottle and cool. It will keep in the fridge for a about a year, but it'll likely be gone before then.