The spring produce season has arrived and, by all accounts, this year's crop is fantastic. The morels are plump and plentiful, the asparagus is sweet and tender, and the ramps have been showing their pointy leaves everywhere. All you need to do is look at your foodie friend's Instagram feed and you'll see the fruits of their foraging labor.
These seasonal delights are great and I have been known to indulge in a morsel or two, especially when sauteed with a couple of knobs of butter. But when push comes to shove, I'm really in it for the rhubarb.
Rhubarb is the workhorse of the spring harvest. With its stringy stalk and big, ugly green leaf on top, it is decidedly unglamorous. The stalk is mouth-puckeringly astringent and that big, ugly leaf can make you sick and worse, if you eat enough. With all this going for it, you might wonder if it is even worth the bother. Let me tell you, it most assuredly is.
I grew up with rhubarb. My parents’ garden always had a large section devoted to it and my mom was always coming up with new ways to prepare it. There were crisps and crumbles, breads and muffins, pies (with and without strawberries) and jam (typically with strawberries). Quite frequently, it was boiled down with sugar and turned into a sweet and tangy substance simply known as “rhubarb sauce.” This was canned and stored in the basement to be opened on some blustery January day when our Saturday morning pancakes really needed to taste like late spring rather than the dead of winter.
My wife and I recently finished clearing out a side yard that we call the woods. When we started over a year ago, it was more like a jungle. There were no real plans for landscaping yet, just to see what existed under all the neglected thicket. Countless hours of clearing and two bouts with poison ivy later, we were able to see our little forest floor. There was a variety of flowers including trilliums and Dutchman’s breeches, a scattering of ramps and, smack dab in the middle, a rhubarb patch.
I was elated. My very own rhubarb patch to do with as I pleased. I could make desserts, quick breads, rhubarb sauce. I could even pick a stalk, dip it in sugar and munch on it like we used to do as kids. As I let my mind wander, I expanded the possibilities. What if, rather than creating new desserts that always required the addition of two tons of sugar, I focused on the astringent qualities of rhubarb. That daydreaming session yielded three recipes for tangy rhubarb accompaniments to, well, summer itself. Dress your favorite salad in a pretty pink rhubarb vinaigrette. Accompany grilled burgers and brats with snappy rhubarb pickles. Top your steak with a piquant rhubarb mostarda. The choice is yours; sweet or savory, you can’t go wrong with rhubarb.
1 c. thinly sliced rhubarb (about 1 stalk)
2 T. sugar
2 T. lemon juice
¼ t. paprika
¼ t. dried thyme
Pinch cayenne pepper
¼ c. canola oil
Salt to taste
Puree all ingredients except the oil in a food processor or blender. When they are smooth, slowly drizzle in the oil to form a smooth emulsion. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Rhubarb Refrigerator Pickles
1 stalk rhubarb, cut into 3-inch lengths and sliced to make thin sticks
½ c. water
½ c. red wine vinegar
2 t. salt
2 t. sugar
½ t. black peppercorns
½ t. coriander seeds
¼ t. red pepper flakes
Place rhubarb in a heat-proof container. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil and pour over rhubarb. Cool at room temperature for an hour then cover and refrigerate overnight. Pickles will keep, refrigerated, for up to a month.
Cranberry Rhubarb Mostarda
1 c. rhubarb pieces (about one stalk)
¼ c. dried cranberries
¼ c. minced red onion
¼ c. dry white wine
2 T. red wine vinegar
⅓ c. water
2 T. honey
½ t. dried sage
1 t. dry mustard
2 t. Dijon mustard
1 T. butter
Combine rhubarb, cranberries, onion, wine, vinegar, water and honey and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes or until rhubarb has softened. Add remaining ingredients and cook for another 3 minutes. Mostarda should have a jam-like consistency. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature with grilled or roasted meats or vegetables.
Bruce Wallis is an experienced chef de cuisine with a culinary arts degree from Fox Valley Technical College and is assistant director of food service at The Leelanau School. He was a contSweet ributing food columnist for the Duluth News Tribune.