Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Best Things You Probably Aren't Eating Yet: Rhubarb

I think I need a springtervention.  I am so excited about spring, and all of the goodies it brings.  As my freezer starts to get more and more emptied of last year's harvest, I start to look ahead to the good things on the way.  In the spring and early summer, that means rhubarb.

Rhubarb is a puzzle to a lot of people.  It's hard to pass by its' beautiful ruby stalks without noticing it, but not many people stop and pick some up.  It's tart, it's big, it kind of looks like red celery, grocery stores put it in the vegetable section, but it's used more like a fruit, the leaves are actually poisonous...let's face it...it's kind of weird.  Even the word "rhubarb" means "a heated debate or controversy".  But there's no need to debate in my mind.  Used in the right ways, rhubarb is a real spring treat.

Rhubarb has potassium, vitamin C, fiber and calcium.  It's been used for centuries as a medicinal herb, reducing inflammation and assisting digestion.  And it makes some amazing baked goods, like this beautiful rhubarb cake from Not Without Salt, which I could eat everyday for the rest of my life.



It's still a little early for rhubarb here in the Midwest, but lucky for me, a roll of the dice that I took last spring paid off.  On a whim, after impulse-buying a ton of rhubarb at an outdoor market in Wisconsin because it was too cheap and too fresh to pass up, I just chopped it all into 1-inch pieces, put it into freezer bags (1 cup in each bag), and froze it.  I've heard that you should blanch it first, but for whatever reason (3 kids, anyone?), I was busy that day and didn't.  So far, all of the rhubarb coming out of my freezer has been just fine.

Last night, I was in an impulsive mood and cooking chicken in a new strawberry-pepper sauce that I wasn't sure the kiddos would go for.  So, I decide to prepare a reward for being open-minded and have a dessert in the wings.  Not a bribe, per say, but...okay, yeah, a bribe.  Ice cream.  With a fruity, delicious topping.  That included rhubarb.  I didn't end up needing the bribe to get them to eat because they loved the chicken, but that's another story.

The recipe is from one of my favorites, Jamie Oliver.  He serves it over rice pudding, but I have vivid memories of my grandmother making fresh strawberry sauce and pouring it over vanilla ice cream for me to scarf down, and I thought that would work just as well.  The sauce is made with Pimm's, an herby gin-ish liqueur that would have made in into a certain song in The Sound of Music if I had written it.

(I just had to stop for a sec and think about how funny my version of that song would be, and I pretty much have the whole thing written.  Let's just say I rhymed "polenta" and "magenta".  It's epic.)

Okay, so here's my version of the recipe, loosely measured and tossed together as it is:

Chop up a bunch of rhubarb into i-inch pieces and take about 3-4 cups of it.  (Or pull a few cups of frozen rhubarb out of your freezer.)  Chop up a few strawberries, about a cup or two.  (Again, from the freezer works too.)

Take 3-4 tablespoons of sugar and put it into a medium saucepan.  Add some orange peel and lemon peels, and the juice of the orange.  Put it over medium heat.  Add 4 tablespoons of Pimm's, and be careful because the alcohol could catch the flame.  Don't freak out, it will burn off and be fine.  Toss in a bay leaf (I know, sounds weird, but I trusted JO, and it works.).   

When it's at a boil, toss in the rhubarb, stir it around, stick a lid on it, reduce the heat, and simmer it for 5 minutes or so.  The more you boil it, the less chunky it will be.  Add the strawberries, keep the lid off, and cook for another few minutes.

Let it cool a bit (lava hot), and then enjoy!  We found that the creamy sweetness of the ice cream was a great juxtaposition with the tartness of the sauce.  The kids even had seconds of the sauce, because they ate it all off the top of the ice cream and had ice cream left over in their bowls.  We also tried the leftovers on top of waffles this morning, with great success!

Okay, so I *may* have taken a few bites before I thought to take a pic of it.  I'm only human.
I'm planting some rhubarb by my deck this week, and I'm hoping for loads and loads of it in a couple of seasons.  I'm sure that batches and batches of this sauce will be made.  And that's just fine with me.