Tart-tasting rhubarb a good foil to berries and peaches

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2003

Watching the rhubarb grow around town these past few weeks, I have been struck by how much a rhubarb plant looks like it tastes: big, fast, almost wild. Rhubarb is as bitterly green as chard, as stalky as celery, and as pleasingly red as a strawberry.

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer.

When considering rhubarb, there is no way around its forthright tartness. Naturally sweet fruits, such as berries and peaches, are the classic foil for this sour vegetable which is most often found baked into pies or other desserts in which copious doses of sugar tame its unruly astringency. It is also possible to work with rhubarb's assertive flavor by using it to accent mild bases such as chicken or halibut, as in the recipe below.

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that thrives in cooler temperatures making it particularly well suited to Southeast Alaska where it grows with abandon.

Although it can be harvested at any time during the summer, rhubarb is mildest and most tender when the plant is still young. Rhubarb does not keep long once it has been cut, so it is best to use it shortly after you purchase or harvest it.

Since rhubarb leaves contain toxic quantities of oxalic acid, it is necessary to trim them away before cooking, leaving only the stem. Some recipes suggest pulling out the stringy ribs that run up and down the stalks, but if you will be pureeing or baking the rhubarb, or if it is early in its season, this is not necessary.

This syrup is a simple way to use a good amount of rhubarb and is delicious and incredibly versatile. Try it with any combination of fresh summer berries, vanilla ice cream and fruit sorbets. It is excellent drizzled over strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped cream. You could even brush it on a pork loin with a bit of mustard or cayenne pepper while grilling or roasting. You can vary the flavor by adding fresh herbs such as mint or rosemary, or seasonings such as ginger root or vanilla beans, to the pot before simmering. For greater complexity, a teaspoon or two of fresh orange or lemon juice, or rum or brandy can be added once the syrup has cooled. The syrup will keep well in a jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Rhubarb syrup

2 pounds trimmed rhubarb, cut in 1/4" slices

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 cup water

pinch of salt

1. In a pot large enough to hold the rhubarb, heat the water and sugar over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.

2. Add the rhubarb and salt and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Strain the syrup, pressing on the rhubarb to release all of its juices. Discard the left over pulp. Allow the syrup to cool and chill before using.

Rhubarb and fresh halibut are with us here in Juneau for much of the same time each year, and they pair nicely in this dish.

Broiled halibut with rhubarb sauce

4 pieces halibut, 8 oz each

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 pound trimmed rhubarb, cut in 1/4" slices

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

2 shallots, diced

1/2 cup fish stock or clam juice

1/2 cup white wine

salt and pepper to taste

fresh lemon juice to taste

1. Combine the rhubarb and sugar in a bowl and let stand for 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, rub the halibut on both sides with the mustard and salt and pepper to taste.

3. Heat the olive oil or butter over medium heat in a saucepan large enough to hold the rhubarb until the butter is melted, or the oil is hot but not smoking. Add the shallot and sauté until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the rhubarb sugar mixture, fish stock, wine and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, or until rhubarb is soft. If you prefer a smoother sauce you can puree it at this point.

5. Broil the halibut in a preheated broiler, 6 inches from heat, until just cooked through at the thickest point - start checking after 4-5 minutes. Serve the halibut topped with the sauce and drizzled with fresh lemon juice to taste.

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