There is a tiny agent of good at work in the world. In the orchard, in the vegetable patch, and in the flower border on the roadside, each day the honeybee is up with the sun (of course) and out the door without benefit of coffee or shower. It works selflessly alongside its comrades, forming a seamless superorganism that takes care of its own needs while making the world a better place. The biodiversity of our planet (and the delectability of our table!) rests on its tiny, bewinged, bestriped, befuzzed shoulders. Thank you, honeybee.
Let’s back up about a hundred million years. While plants are able to gather the energy of the sun and convert it to, well, everything they need, their stationary habits preclude all but the most immediate sexual contact and reproduction. Over time, that limitation would result in a complete lack of genetic diversity in any specific area. Genetic diversity enables beings, animal or vegetable, to survive environmental changes.
And so nature needed animals to move around the earth, sticking their noses (and legs, and ears, and tails) into all the plant life before moving along. What do the pollinators get out of this quickie? Well, a stimulating sight or smell to inspire the visit; a sip of nectar or a nibble of fruit for nourishment; a dab of pollen behind the ears or about the legs. This arrangement enables plant genes to travel the world over, while nourishing the animals and insects that are lured into service. An elegant solution.
Back to the current growing season. It is estimated that honeybees provide primary pollination for 70 percent of the crops that we eat. To their credit and their detriment, honeybees can’t be kept from the task at hand, but it could be said that we humans work for the honeybee (rather than the opposite)— we ship bees all over the world so that they can do their work and provide them with food to get through the winter. A by-product of all of this work is honey, the luscious and otherworldly end result of the bees’ labors, nourishing to queen and drone alike and, conveniently, to humans as well.
Honey at home
In your kitchen, honey is the equivalent of a magical elixir, benefiting everything that it touches. It offers a textured sweetness that is at once liquid and crystalline, runny yet thick. In a vinaigrette salad dressing, honey acts as a stabilizer and a sweetener, and will also lend the liquid a golden glow and a satisfying viscosity (keep the dressing on the salad, where it belongs!)
For foods that tend to be sour, bitter or astringent (underripe fruit, dark leafy greens, and mustard, respectively) a drizzle of honey provides lift and sparkle. Try honey as a sweetener in whipped cream—you’ll find the cream will carry and transform the honey flavor into a compound that is rich and refreshing.
If honey crystallizes in your cupboard, heat a pan of water and then (off the heat, please) submerge the honey in it. For this reason, honey stored in glass is preferable to that stored in plastic. When your jar level is low and your frustration level is high, drop the spoon and forget the pan of water —instead, use that jar for your next salad dressing, beginning with a bit of warm water to dissolve the honey before adding the remaining ingredients.—Lisa Reeder
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.
Culinary uses for honey
—Drizzled on cheese
—Stabilizer and flavor agent in vinaigrette
—Caramelizer in marinades and grill sauces
—Sweetener in ice cream, sorbet, desserts, and dressings and sauces
—Thing to eat on bread with butter
Grilled peaches with honey
Choose ripe but firm local peaches (freestone types will be the easiest to handle). Slice longitudinally, twist to remove from pit, and put in a large stainless steel bowl. Brush honey across the open flesh of the peach, then grill for 3 to 4 minutes, rotating midways and then removing from the heat and returning to the large bowl so that the juice is contained. While the peaches are cooking, make the honey whipped cream. Place about 1 tsp. of wild honey in a stainless steel pot, then add 1 cup of heavy whipping cream and whip with a whisk until light and fluffy. To serve, pile the honey cream on top of the grilled peach segment, drizzling the peach juice on top for extra yum.