2000s Archive

Nimble Nectar

Originally Published February 2009
Cherished by the Aztecs, this natural sweetener is vegan and has a low glycemic index. Which may change civilization as we know it.

A worker stacks agave hearts at a tequila distillery in Amatitán, Mexico.


Once little more than a curio sitting near the Goji berries at the natural food store, agave is suddenly having its moment. Cherished for hundreds of years by the Aztecs, the nectar has replaced liquid sugar on communal café tables around New York City. At Clio, in Boston, chef Ken Oringer gives his venison a touch of sweetness with the juice of agave, and at Sona, in L.A., pastry chef Ramon Perez infuses it into baked fruit, pumpkin cake, and his own granola. When Marc Ehrler, executive chef at the Ventana Room, in Tucson, brushed the nectar onto cod before searingthe fish, he noticed a lovely coating. “Crispy,” he says. “Like chips.”

Clearly, agave has arrived. At about eight years old, the plant sprouts a stalk that has a bulbous heart. Inside the heart is a soft center that, when scooped out, fills with aguamiel (honey water) that can be drunk or turned into syrup. A natural sweetener like honey, the syrup suits vegans and has a low glycemic index. It’s sweeter than refined sugar, and because of its consistency, it mixes into a chilled marinade just as smoothly as its does into a warm sauce. Two caveats, however: It overheats easily, and it’s runny. According to Ania Catalano, author of Baking with Agave Nectar, you can substitute three quarters of a cup of nectar for every cup of sugar called for in a recipe, lower oven temperature by 25 degrees, and reduce other liquid ingredients (oil, water) by a third to avoid shapeless mishaps.

When the Spaniards overran the Aztecs in the 16th century, they fermented agave and invented tequila. While tequila is distilled only from the starches of Mexico’s Agave tequilana Weber var. azul, agave nectar can be harvested from other species. But the European invaders preferred to sweeten their food with sugar. “Sugar was high-status back then,” notes New York City chef Roberto Santibañez, a native of Mexico City. Today, the tables have turned: While sugar is at the center of the obesity debate, agave is riding high as the original and virtuous alternative.

Mesa Grill mixologist Laurence Kretchmer has come up with this recipe for an agave Margarita: Combine 2 oz 100% Blue Agave Blanco Tequila, 1 1/4 oz fresh lime juice, and 1/2 oz agave nectar in a cocktail shaker with ice; shake vigorously; strain over rocks; garnish with lime and salt if desired.

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