Wednesday, May 25, 2011
My Obsession for the Month of May is Rhubarb. It is such a beautiful vegetable. Perhaps one cannot really call it a fruit, but it is the first true fruit of spring. I currently have about five plants going, which seems like quite a few, since rhubarb plants are large, but if you are canning or preserving the rhubarb, it is easy to dispatch with what five plants can produce. Putting down, or putting up the rhubarb is the task I address today.
The simplest, and very fast method for preserving rhubarb is to wash, chop, measure, and then freeze the stalks. Simply throw them in bags in the freezer. I always measure it first, and then label the bag with the amount inside. This simplifies things later when you go to use it.
First, both with my beautiful forced rhubarb, and my regular rhubarb crop, I made rhubarb compote, using the recipe from Alice Water's Chez Panisse Fruit:
1 lb of rhubarb
zest of 1 orange (valencia or other juice orange)
1/2 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
Combine ingredients together in an ungreased baking dish. Bake covered for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove cover and bake for another 5-10 minutes, or until rhubarb is soft, but still in pieces.
This compote is lovely on ice cream, creme fraiche or yogurt, or eaten on its own. It would also be nice with meat. I find it best if you leave it for several days before eating so that the flavours can really meld.
The orange zest beautifully tempers the tartness of the rhubarb. The first batch of compote that I made with the forced rhubarb was eaten fairly immediately - 1 and 3/4 jars full. There they are, in the refrigerator beside last year's dill pickles. It is a beautiful bright pink colour.
For the second batch, I multiplied the recipe six times to make enough to preserve in jars. I harvested six pounds of rhubarb! I applied the same method as above, but after placing the compote in jars, I processed the compote for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. This ensured that my jars would properly seal. Six pounds of rhubarb yielded 4 quart jars.
Notice that the compote made with this rhubarb is different in colour, made up of of the red and green parts of the rhubarb stalk. To achieve a pink colour, you can exclude the green parts of the stalk, using only the red, but I do not like to waste any part of a good stalk of rhubarb. I like the odd green colour of the the compote.
Second, I made rhubarb jam, which is something I have never tried. I always make strawberry-rhubarb jam, but this year I was inspired by my newest culinary obsession, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, a birthday gift from my dear mother. The book's author, and proprietor of the Blue Chair Jam Company, Rachel Saunders, praises the purity of flavour of plain rhubarb jam:
"One thing that always mystifies me is the difficulty of finding rhubarb cooked on its own; we always seem to succumb to the temptation to combine it with something else. Yet rhubarb's unique flavour and texture set it apart from other early summer ingredients, and a really perfect rhubarb jam is hard to beat."
The recipe contains only rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice. Lemon juice brings out the flavour of the fruit. It is an ingredient in all of Rachel Saunders Blue Chair jams. The jam was everything promised in this beautiful cookbook - intense fruit flavour, tart and wonderful. I ate it for breakfast this morning.
Recently, while reacquainting myself with The Victorian Kitchen Garden, I learned not only of the technique of growing rhubarb in a forcing pot, as I did this year, but also of raising it in a heated, darkened forcing shed to bring on the growth of rhubarb in the winter. In the north of England, they once had whole buildings devoted to this purpose. Rhubarb forcing factories! Now that I've seen that, I wondered if it is possible do so in one's basement. My suspicion was confirmed by Dick Raymond of Garden Ways Joy of Gardening. This is possible. More on this later!
Perhaps we are tired of hearing all about rhubarb, but this will not be the last you hear of it from me. I have yet to extoll its virtues as a useful natural dye plant and mordant!