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(MCT)—When you want to add sweetness to your holiday meals, consider using maple syrup, which contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals than sugar or honey.

Pure maple syrup is more expensive than maple-flavored pancake syrup but its unique flavor makes it worth the money. This thick amber liquid with its distinctive, earthy sweetness is made from the sap of the sugar, black or red maple tree.

Native Americans used the syrup as a food and a medicine. The process begins with tapping the tree, which allows the sap to run out freely. The sap, which is clear, flavorless and very low in sugar, is boiled to evaporate the water and concentrate the flavor. It requires 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.

All maple syrups are labeled with a grade based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture system. The lighter the color, the more subtle the flavor.

Unopened containers of maple syrup can be stored in a cool dry place, but once opened they should be refrigerated. If any mold appears in the syrup, even just on the surface, you should discard the container.

Here are a few ideas for using maple syrup in the kitchen:

• Pour it on oatmeal topped with walnuts and raisins.
• Add it along with cinnamon to pureed cooked sweet potatoes.
• Combine it with orange juice and soy sauce to use as a marinade for salmon, spare ribs or baked tofu.
• Combine it with olive oil, pour over cut-up root vegetable (carrots, parsnips, butternut squash, turnips) and roast for a delicious side dish.
• Combine it with butter and brown sugar and fill the cavities of apples before baking.

Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-author of “Mmmmiami: Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere.”

©2012 The Miami Herald
Distributed by MCT Information Services