Agave Nectar — Off the Beaten Aisle

By: J.M. Hirsch
Finally — a way to enjoy agave without the hangover!

That's right: Agave nectar, the current darling of the alternative sweetener world, is made from the same plant that is used to produce tequila. And it goes down so much easier (squeeze of lime and dash of salt are optional).

But let's start with some basics. Agave nectar (sometimes called agave syrup) is an amber liquid that resembles honey, but has a cleaner, sweeter, even fruitier flavor. Not long ago it was mostly unheard of in the U.S., existing primarily in the backwaters of the natural foods world.

In recent years, it has evolved into a booming $200 million industry. Suddenly, it's being used in everything from ketchup and barbecue sauce to baked goods and ice cream. And don't even get me started about the cocktail scene.

Why all this attention to what amounts to the juice of a large cactus-looking plant native to Mexico?

It helps that agave syrup is sweeter than conventional sugar. So while it has the same calories as white sugar, you can use less of it without sacrificing flavor. When substituting, aim to use about 25 percent less than you would use refined sugar.

Many consumers also have latched on to agave's glycemic appeal. Which is a fancy way of saying that agave syrup is believed to have a less intense effect on blood sugar levels.

When shopping for agave, check the grocer's baking or honey sections, as well as the natural foods aisle. It usually is sold in squirt bottles. While some companies offer flavored varieties, the most common choices are light and amber.

Light agave syrup is highly filtered and lightly heated. Amber syrups are less filtered and heated a little bit more. The latter also has a more robust flavor. Think of it this way: Light agave is to amber agave as honey is to maple syrup.

Now that we’ve had our SAT moment, what should you do with agave? In general terms, light agave works well with light, fruity desserts. Heavily seasoned items, such as pumpkin pie, call for amber. The darker agave also makes a fine pancake or waffle topping on its own.

— Use agave in cocktails (light with lighter liquors, amber with darker). It mixes far better than honey and is tastier than simple syrup. For example, agave produces a fine mojito. And of course it pairs perfectly with tequila.

— Top toasted baguette slices with crumbled feta cheese, fresh oregano and chopped toasted walnuts, then drizzle with agave syrup for a delicious crostini.

— Whisk together an egg, Dijon mustard, agave syrup and garlic powder, then dredge chicken breast tenders through it. Coat the tenders with panko breadcrumbs, then pan-fry or bake until crispy on the outside. For a dipping sauce, whisk together more mustard and agave for a honey mustard-like sauce.

— Mix together agave and melted butter (or olive oil), then brush this under the skin of a chicken or turkey before roasting. Stick with just butter or oil for the outside of the skin, as the sugar will brown too quickly.

— Cut apples or pears in half, then scoop out the cores. Coat with a bit of oil, then grill (or grill pan) until barely tender and nice grill marks appear. Fill the cavity in each half with crumbled goat cheese, then sprinkle with cinnamon and drizzle with agave.

Agave-Barbecue Roasted Chicken
Start to finish: 1 hour
Servings: 4 to 6
3- to 5-pound whole chicken
Kosher salt and ground black pepper

For the barbecue sauce:
6-ounce can tomato paste
5 tablespoons agave syrup
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 tablespoons cider vinegar
1½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place the chicken on the cutting board breast side down. Use kitchen shears to carefully cut from the neck hole down the length of the backbone and out the rump. This will require a little effort, but the shears should cut through the bones without difficulty.

Spread open the chicken, exposing the cavity. Sprinkle the inside with salt and pepper. Turn over the chicken and place it cavity side down in a roasting pan just a bit larger than the chicken. Gently press the chicken to flatten. Season over and under the skin with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with foil and roast for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the barbecue sauce. In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Set aside.

After the chicken has roasted for 30 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and remove the foil. Use a pastry brush to brush the barbecue sauce thickly over the entire chicken. Return the chicken to the oven and roast for another 30 minutes, or until the meat at the thickest part reaches 165 degrees F.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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