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A&E >  Food

Agave syrup offers alternative to sugar

Cactus nectar’s popularity surges

Julie Wiener Associated Press

A cactus-based sugary syrup has become the latest darling of the alternative sweetener world.

Once mostly unheard of outside natural food stores, agave syrup – made from the same Mexican cactus that yields tequila – suddenly is getting celebrity endorsements, is competing for shelf space at mainstream grocers and is a must-have cocktail ingredient.

“If I’m going to be making a premium margarita, agave nectar’s got to be riding shotgun,” says Food Network star Guy Fieri, who is better known for his greasy spoon affection than his natural foods know-how.

“It’s not overly cloying. It’s delicious. Put it over pineapple, strawberries,” he says. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste like tequila syrup!”

The growth of agave has been strong, part of an overall trend in the natural and organic sweeteners market, which went from $85 million in 1998 to $200 million last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal, which follows the natural foods industry.

And last year, 304 products sported agave syrup as an ingredient; in 2003 it was 60, according to market research firm DataMonitor.

Fans of the syrup praise its mild, fruity flavor, its ease in baking and its relative healthfulness. While it has the same number of calories per teaspoon as table sugar, it is sweeter, so you can use less of it.

Much of its popularity also stems from heavy marketing of its low glycemic effect, meaning agave syrup is believed to have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar levels than refined sugars, such as white sugar and corn syrup.

It also is popular among vegans, who don’t eat animal products and consider agave an ethically better choice than honey.

Agave syrup is generally available in three varieties: raw, which has a maple syrup-like color and moderate caramel flavor; light, which has a light caramel flavor and color; and amber, which is similar in color and flavor to raw.

Ania Catalano, author of “Baking with Agave Nectar,” says light agave is best for light, fruity desserts that call for a gentle sweetness without a distinct agave flavor. She suggests amber for heavily seasoned pies, such as pumpkin, or as a topping for pancakes or waffles.

Pastry chef Mani Niall, author of the cookbook “Sweet! From Agave to Turbinado,” says agave nectar works well in everything from rich desserts to elegant cocktails. “It doesn’t have to be some brown health food-y thing,” he says.

One reason agave syrup has caught on is its versatility. Food manufacturers are using it as a sweetener in ketchup, coffee sweeteners, even tonic waters. Niall says it’s easy to work with because it won’t overwhelm a recipe.

In addition to baked goods and drinks, agave nectar can be used in marinades and barbecue sauces. But like sugar and honey, agave can burn under high temperatures, so grill with care.

When substituting agave syrup for white sugar in a recipe, use about 25 percent less than the amount called for. You also will need to adjust other ingredients to compensate for using a liquid, rather than a dry, sweetener.

That extra moisture can be a boon if you like soft, chewy cookies, such as oatmeal. But don’t try it for shortbread or a crispy chocolate chip cookie. “Agave doesn’t like to get crispy,” Catalano says.

And because agave tends to produce browning in baked goods faster than conventional sugar, reduce the oven temperature by about 25 degrees, Catalano says.

Mango-Pineapple Mojito Sorbet

Top this tropical fruit sorbet, which is sweetened with fruity agave syrup, with a heady mash of rum and mint. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour the mixture into an 8-inch square pan and freeze for several hours, stirring it once an hour. Adapted from Mani Niall’s “Sweet! From Agave to Turbinado,” DaCapo, 2008

For the sorbet:

3/4 pound peeled and pitted fresh mango, cut into bite-size chunks

1 1/2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 1/4 cups agave syrup

1/4 cup lemon juice

For the mojito muddle:

Approximately 36 fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons agave syrup

1/4 cup lime juice

1/2 cup silver rum

Prepare an ice cream maker according to product directions.

To make the sorbet, in a blender, combine the mango, pineapple juice, agave syrup and lemon juice. Puree until smooth, then pour into the ice cream maker. Freeze according to product directions. Times will vary by product.

Just before serving, prepare the mojito muddle. In a small bowl, use a wooden spoon or muddler to mash the mint and agave syrup. Stir in the lime juice and rum. Taste and add more agave syrup, if desired.

Divide the mojito muddle among 6 cocktail glasses, then top with sorbet.

Yield: 6 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 338 calories; 2 calories from fat; 0 grams fat (0 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 0 milligrams cholesterol; 78 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram protein; 1 gram fiber; 3 milligrams sodium.

Chili-Rubbed Agave Chicken

Heat and sweet harmonize nicely in this chicken dish sweetened with agave syrup and spiced up with ground ancho chilies. Serve this with a side of roasted sweet potatoes. Adapted from Mani Niall’s “Sweet! From Agave to Turbinado.”

3 tablespoons ground ancho chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon salt

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth

3 tablespoons agave syrup

Lime wedges, for garnish

In a small bowl, mix together the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne and salt. Set aside.

Place each chicken breast between 2 pieces of plastic wrap, then use the flat side of a meat mallet to gently flatten each breast until it is about 3/4 inch thick. Rub each breast with the seasoning mixture.

In a large skillet over medium, heat the oil. Place the chicken in the skillet. Cook until the underside is well browned, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook until the other side is browned, about 3 minutes longer.

Add the broth and agave syrup, and bring to a simmer. Be careful that the liquid doesn’t boil over. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until the chicken feels firm when pressed at the center, about 3 minutes longer.

Transfer the chicken to dinner plates and pour the juices on top. Serve with lime wedges.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 256 calories; 72 calories from fat; 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated; 0 grams trans fats); 68 milligrams cholesterol; 18 grams carbohydrate; 29 grams protein; 3 grams fiber; 728 milligrams sodium.

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