I was excited to see rhubarb at the Berkeley Farmers’ market last Saturday — I think it is the first time I have seen it there. I had seen a delicious-looking recipe for a rhubarb-cherry crumble with fresh ginger on local kitchen, one of the blogs I always enjoy reading. Kaela preserves a wonderful variety of jams, pickles and marmalades. Here was a crisp that I could tackle easily with cherries in season.
I have had few encounters with rhubarb in my life. My mother never cooked it at home, although she ate it as a child in Illinois. Neither of us like cooked strawberries, preferring to eat them raw, so strawberry-rhubarb pie is not in our pie arsenal. I once ate some rhubarb pie at a doll class potluck — the baker thought its pink color was particularly appropriate for a group of women artists. While I didn’t have to choke it down, I didn’t jump for joy and ask for the recipe either.
Now, if rhubarb grew abundantly in our yard or if a neighbor left baskets of it on our porch I would figure out how to make it palatable or resort to ferreting out all of my rhubarb-loving acquaintances and foisting it on them. Riverdog Farm has not included it in a box in the last five years either. But a couple of years ago I had had my best encounter to date with rhubarb: Toni, who grows it in her Oakland yard, smothered it with brown sugar, dried fruit, nuts and sweet spices, popped it into the oven and roasted it. The result was brown and syrupy and sweet. But when I asked her for the recipe this year she could not remember ever making it that way, a brilliant improvised recipe lost to the world.
When I bought the rhubarb last week, I tasted it cautiously at the bus stop, breaking a small piece off the end of a raw stalk. How sour would it be? I am happy to report that it didn’t lock my jaw. The taste reminded me of chewing sour grass when I was a kid, faintly reminiscent of lemon and green plants. But rhubarb is one of those things like quince — most people do not eat it raw. Cooking transforms it, but tasting it raw does not help you plan how to cook it.
This morning I turned to the guidelines of other cooks: what have they done with it? Well, they boil it with sugar, raw or white or brown. They stew it with prunes and apricots. They combine it with strawberries in pies and compotes and jam. Enterprising cooks use it in sauces for roast pork. I hunted through some cookbooks for awhile. Then I cut and measured my remaining rhubarb: I had three cups left.
Fine. Enough for three small experiments. Experiment #1, rhubarb roasted with vanilla bean and Creme de Cassis, suggested by The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook. Experiment #2, rhubarb cooked down to a syrup, a variation on Heidi Swanson’s Rhubarb and Rosewater Syrup recipe. Experiment #3, rhubarb cooked in a compote with dried fruit, adapted from the Eat Fresh, Stay Healthy cookbook, an offering from the used book sale at the Kensington Library.
Experiment #1, the roasted rhubarb, smelled wonderful, both before and after baking, from the perfume of the vanilla bean and the Creme de Cassis. This rhubarb, mostly pale green with red ends remained green after roasting. The syrup has a slight dark red tinge. I tasted the result cautiously, one piece on a small spoon. It is delicious. The white sugar, vanilla and black currant liquor have mellowed the rhubarb into something tasty: I could eat it straight from a bowl, topped with cream, milk, half and half or yogurt, or I could mix it into cereal.
Experiment #2, rhubarb syrup, essentially rhubarb simmered in a simple syrup to which I added a vanilla bean, tasted good, with just a hint of rhubarb flavor. I used 1 cup of rhubarb, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water and 1/2 of a vanilla bean. I let the rhubarb marinate in the sugar for a couple of hours before I added the water and brought it to a simmer. I strained the syrup from the cooked rhubarb. It came out blush pink. I tried an ounce of it in about four ounces of sparkling water with lime. I also tried an ounce of it in some cold tea. I’ll eat the leftover sweetened rhubarb puree with some light cream for dessert some night this week, or stir it into my morning cereal. It is too early in the day to put some of the syrup in a glass of sparkling wine, but I may get to that.
Experiment #3, the compote, may be the least successful. I simmered 3/4 cup dried prunes and 1/4 cup dried apricots in a cup of water with some nutmeg, fresh ginger and 1/3 cup of sugar before adding the rhubarb for five or six minutes. The problem with this is that the rhubarb has not absorbed the flavors before it begins to break down. But it may taste better tomorrow after sitting — compotes often do. I tasted it warm.
I brought the rhubarb-cherry crumble to a singing session on Friday. Some people liked it. I was disappointed. The color was lovely: the rhubarb and cherries melded into a deep red. The fruit proved to be too sweet for my tastes (I was afraid to scant the sugar due to my inexperience with rhubarb preparations) and there was an off-putting flavor, which I believe was the taste of the rhubarb. I made a crumb topping with butter, homemade granola (not very sweet), brown sugar and a few tablespoons of flaked coconut. I thought the topping was also too sweet and will go back to using plain rolled oats in crisp topping (Local Kitchen’s recipe calls for a gluten-free topping with brown rice flour, oats, butter, and flax seed).
Food notes: If you are a confirmed rhubarb lover and have no fear of canning, you might want to try Local Kitchen’s rhubarb prosecco jelly. It’s the sort of thing I would love to have a taste of, but would not want to commit to making it unless I had tasted it first. Disclaimer: I have been exercising a lot lately, which might be why the sweet rhubarb syrup, roasted rhubarb and puree suddenly tasted great…
P.S. I mixed rhubarb compote into my blue corn cereal this morning and it was just fine: with the heat of the cereal, the cooked rhubarb melts into the compote and what you get is a spicy syrup. And rhubarb syrup in water is nice on a hot day.