It's that time of year: Rhubarb's ruby shoots are bursting through the muck of spring, bold, bright and tart.
Sure, rhubarb is wonderful in tarts, crisps and crumbles — how can it not be with a nickname like "the pie plant." But its savory side is worthy of attention, too. It's a very versatile vegetable (yes, it is a vegetable).
Rhubarb's acerbic flavor slashes through rich meats and stews like lemon juice, but with the added benefit of thickening as it dissolves. Think cranberry sauce with turkey or tart applesauce with pork or preserved lemon in tagines and curries. The only downside to savory rhubarb sauce is that tends to lose some of its vibrant pinkness. To perk things up, I like to add a few chopped raw stalks as a garnish to the finished dish.
The joys and the challenge of cooking rhubarb is its excess juice. The stalks will simmer quickly into a full-bodied conserve or jam that needs no thickeners, but that same quality can weigh down a buttery, flaky crust or the tender crumb of a cake or muffin. One trick is to bake the fruit first, then drain off the juice before using the cooked stalks in doughs and batters. Be sure to save that juice for a summery cocktail or a light spritz. (Years ago, rhubarb juice, cut with a little sugar and water, was called "rhubarb lemonade.")
As a child, I was often tasked with gathering stalks in my grandmother's garden for her buttery crumbles. She taught me to reach down low to cut the plant at the base of crown, the most flavorful part. With the arrival of spring, I grow nostalgic when rhubarb shoots up through the damp leaves and hurry to make her recipe (a family favorite) topped with plenty of toasted oats and nut topping — an effortless, high-impact dessert that's best served with plenty of whipped cream.
Tart and Spicy Rhubarb Conserve
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
So simple, so easy, so tart and spicy, this is delicious on top of grilled chicken or pork and alongside curry. It will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for about a week. The only trick is to cook the rhubarb just until tender (it shouldn't be falling apart). We used it to top bruschetta smeared with soft chèvre and garnished with chopped cilantro, but cream cheese or mascarpone will work nicely, too. From Beth Dooley.
• 3 to 3 1/2 c. chopped rhubarb
• 10 grinds black pepper
• 2 tbsp. diced shallots
• 1/3 c. rice wine vinegar
• 1/4 c. honey, or to taste
• 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
• Pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
• 1 tbsp. fresh lime juice, to taste
Put the rhubarb, pepper, shallots, vinegar, honey, ginger and a pinch of red pepper flakes into a medium skillet and set over medium-low heat. Stir together and cook until the rhubarb releases its juices and becomes tender, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking until the juice begins to thicken, another 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lime juice, to taste.
Browned Butter Rhubarb Crumble
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This old-fashioned favorite is updated with browned butter and toasted oats that bump up the topping's rich, nutty taste. Vary the fruit to suit the season. It's a homey high-impact dessert best served with mounds of whipped cream. To toast the oats, spread the oats out on a baking sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven until they smell nutty and toasty, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/3 c. unsalted butter
• 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
• 1/4 c. maple sugar or light brown sugar
• 1/4 c. chopped pecans
• 1/4 c. toasted rolled oats (see Note)
• Generous pinch coarse salt
• 1 lb. rhubarb, cut into 1-in. pieces
• 1/4 c. granulated sugar
• 1 tsp. vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Put the butter into a small skillet set over medium heat and melt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the milk solids turn toasty brown, about 1 to 3 minutes. Remove from the stove and turn into a medium bowl.
Add the flour, sugar, pecans, toasted oats and a pinch of salt to the butter and stir until clumps form (use your fingers as necessary).
In another medium bowl, toss together the rhubarb, sugar, vanilla, and another pinch of salt and transfer the mixture to a small baking dish. Scatter the crumble evenly over the top.
Bake until the topping is golden brown and the rhubarb juices are bubbling, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool slightly, then serve warm.