Chow Town

Rhubarb is a riddle begging to be solved

Rhubarb is a mysterious and often misunderstood member of the fruit and vegetable community.

It has a way of sneaking up on people when the April and May months of spring roll around, as suddenly copious piles of the red hued tart treat fill the tables of farmers markets throughout the land.

Rhubarb is kind of like that eccentric cousin many people tend to have — the one you don’t think about until one day he shows up at your door, with his entire family and a carload of suitcases in tow.

This rhubarb surplus is seen as a problem to some because many people don’t think of the vegetable as anything more than a second fiddle playing in the band with strawberries and pie. That is if they think of rhubarb at all.

Farmers are left with the quandary of little consumer demand for a seasonal vegetable that is both beautiful and abundant.

Well fear not … clear eyes, adventurous palates, can’t lose.

The key to unlocking rhubarb’s many splendored potential is first understanding what makes it unique. It has an appearance that calls to mind the length and fibrous stalks of celery, while its color varies from shades of warm reds to lighter hues of greens, purples and pinks.

The tart flavor characteristics of rhubarb are where things begin to get intriguing. Tartness, or the sour taste sense, is conventionally emphasized less than others such as sweet, salty, bitter and umami.

As such, rhubarb is often combined with sweet items and cast off almost like a wallflower in the world of dessert ingredients. But rhubarb does not have to suffer such a sad fate. Its flavors and textures play well in many dishes, from savory to sweet and all manner of interesting points in between.

A classic companion to rhubarb is that of the strawberry, which is natural as it begins to dot the market landscape alongside rhubarb while the spring months progress. The often-smaller strawberries that emerge this time of the season taste of a youthful sweetness that serve as a logical foil to rhubarb’s tart flavor profile.

This generally leads to sweet applications, as sugar or some sweetener is added to further smooth out the flavors. Pie would be one of the more iconic choices for theses two ingredients, but I find the duo’s tart and sweet duet features beautifully in the form of jam, accented with floral notes of lavender and finished with a secret local ingredient: SodaVie Strawberry Lavender soda. The bubbles of the soda add a brightness that allows each flavor a chance to dance around on the tip of your tongue.

Strawberry and rhubarb offer possibilities far beyond the realm of sweets. One method that works well in harnessing the tart potential of rhubarb for savory use is adding complimentary flavors by way of pickling it. This brings the salty sense of taste to the table, marrying the ingredients to form new and complex harmonies of flavor. Pickled rhubarb goes swimmingly with fresh strawberries and makes for a lovely guest on charcuterie boards and cheese plates alike.

Spring is a time to take the freshest ingredients of the season and create something wonderful with them. So go ahead, give in and give yourself over to the many ways rhubarb can make your life more delicious.

Pickled Rhubarb

This is what is called a “quick pickle.” It is not intended to preserve for long term storage but rather it is best enjoyed after a short curing time allows the flavors to develop appropriately. I did this quick pickle sous vide, or under pressure/vacuum sealed, but it is just as easily done in a mixing bowl or jar. The beet adds color and natural sweetness to the pickle.

Makes 1 jar 2 long stalks of rhubarb, sliced on the bias in 1-inch pieces 1/2 of a small red beet, cut into 4 slices 1 tablespoon sea salt 5 tablespoons sugar A splash of sherry vinegar

To prepare: Sprinkle salt and sugar around the rhubarb and beet slices to coat evenly. Let sit for a couple of hours. Test the consistency, it should start to soften and sweeten as it cures, taking on color from the beet. If it tastes too salty, you can drain some of the brine. When it is ready, add a splash of sherry vinegar to brighten up the proceedings.

Source: Tyler Fox Strawberry, Rhubarb and Lavender Jam

Taste your strawberries; if they aren’t ideally sweet you might add a bit more sugar to taste. It’s a feel thing, use “The Force.” The lavender sugar can be made by adding 1 teaspoon crushed lavender flowers to 1 cup sugar. Pectin will help add to the jam like consistency.

Makes 2 servings 1 pound, local spring strawberries, halved or quartered 1 pound rhubarb, cut into small slices 1 cup lavender scented sugar 1 cardamom pod 1 clove 1 teaspoon pectin (optional) 1/2 bottle SodaVie Strawberry Lavender soda (drink the other half, silly. Its good.)

To prepare: In a mixing bowl or non-reactive saucepan, add rhubarb and sugar, moving around to cover and macerate. Let mixture stand an hour or two, then add strawberries, cardamom, clove and bring to simmer over medium low heat. Stir in pectin if using and cook until rhubarb begins to break down, but strawberries still retain some texture, around 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat, remove clove/cardamom pod and stir in SodaVie, a little at a time. Pour into a container and chill. The jam will thicken and is ready to slather and enjoy as soon as the next day. Your morning scone or toast will begin life anew.

Source: Tyler Fox Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes “nose-to-tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.