I haven't cooked much with rhubarb in recent years, though it has followed me around most of my life, from the ancestral patch in Eden Prairie where I grew up, to a clump that came with a community garden plot I had a few years ago, to the vigorous little forest of thick red stalks that graces our Wisconsin yard. It's the savory applications of rhubarb that intrigue me, so my taste buds pricked up immediately when I read "rhubarb-ramp ranch" on the Graze menu. Then, having eaten and loved it, I wanted to recreate it. And, I had no idea how to do that, specifically, how to get the rhubarb flavor in there, since there were no pieces of rhubarb in the dressing, that I could see.
|A rhubarb patch grows in Ridgeland.|
For the basic nouveau ranch dressing, I went to Momofuku, as David Chang's cooking, specifically at his Ssam Bar restaurant, has been an inspiration to me in terms of...what shall we call it? Creative cross-cultural faux-rustic cookery? Kind of a mouthful. Shoot me a line if you've got a slicker summary. I've made very few of the actual recipes in the Momofuku book, but every time I pick it up I'm inspired by the originality of it, and the utter eatability of the dishes pictured and described there, and really, inspiration is far, far more valuable than any recipe.* But there is a recipe in the Momofuku cookbook very like the Graze dish, "Bev Eggleston's Pork Shoulder Steak," a grilled pork steak served with ramp ranch dressing and a raw vegetable component, from ribbons of raw zucchini to batons of raw celery root. I also swiped the idea for a recipe in my book. (Just to digress a tiny bit further, I was absolutely delighted to find, in Googling "rhubarb ramp ranch," that the first three results are: Momofuku, Trout Caviar, and Graze.) The similarities between Momofuku and Graze are made more compelling when you know that another young Asian-American chef, Tory Miller, heads up both Graze and L'Etoile. Both Miller and Chang are James Beard Foundation honorees. While we finished our coffee before hitting the market, we watched Miller and a couple other Graze cooks head off to shop the market, pulling a slick wooden wagon emblazoned with the Graze logo. Great.
|Graze coaster with market wagon.|
I pulled a few stalks of rhubarb from our patch and pondered them. Like bloated red ribs of celery, they are, and what is celery mostly composed of? Water. Rhubarb juice should be easy enough to extract. I chopped up a couple stalks, tossed them in the FP, and turned it on. It turned into shreds and stuck to the side of the bowl. I added just a couple of tablespoons of water, and with a little more whizzing I had a nice slurry. Put that into a strainer over a bowl, out came rhubarb juice. Which is fascinating stuff. Tasted straight up, it is intriguing, and kind of horrible, among the most sour things I've ever tasted, but with depth to it that makes you think of possibilities. I made a whitefish ceviche last summer in which I used green apple juice and vinegar to "cook" the fish; rhubarb juice might work even better. There are lots of ingredients that aren't that good on their own, but produce wonderful flavors in combination with other products--think lemon juice. Rhubarb juice might just be that versatile**. We'll see. It was terrific in this dressing, and in the glaze I made for my pork shoulder cutlet.
At long last, my rhubarb ramp ranch dressing:
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped pickled ramps
1/4 cup mayonnaise (Hellmann's rules)
2 tablespoons sour cream or buttermilk
3 tablespoons rhubarb juice
a few good grinds of black pepper
Mix all. The acidity of the rhubarb juice sort of fluffs up the dressing--see the bubbles above?--giving it a much lighter texture than you would expect from a dressing based on mayo and sour cream. This small portion was enough to dress the cress and nettle salad (the cress was raw, the nettles blanched as for the recent Sichuan salad) we had with the pork, with leftovers to toss with pan-wilted spinach a couple of nights later. Next time I make it, I'll do a larger batch, as I think it will improve over a few days.
On to the pork, and another source of inspiration, another James Beard winner, this one from way up in the North Woods of Minnesota. One of the best food blogs going is Amy Thielen's Sourtooth Journal, and one of her best posts ever was called "Steak in the Sauna", in which she turned her insatiable curiosity, creativity, and plain food nerdiness (a term I use with utmost affection, it should go without saying) to using a North Woods institution, the sauna, to recreate the sous vide effect that fancy restaurants produce with specialized equipment costing many thousands of dollars. Sous vide sort of precooks food, usually meat or fish, sealed in plastic, in a water bath kept at a specific constant temperature--the perfect temperature for a medium-rare steak, say. Then to finish the dish, the meat is very quickly seared so that it is nicely crusted on the outside, while the interior maintains that ideal, and totally consistent, temperature and doneness. I think that's a reasonable summary, but feel free to correct or expand.
I don't have a sauna (would love one), or a sous vide machine, but I can riff. Thinking of classic sous vide cooking wouldn't have led me to my excellent conclusion, but thinking about Amy's sauna steak did. First off, because of the type of meat I was using, cutlets taken from a pork shoulder, I wanted to try something other than straight grilling. There was a fair amount of fat and connective tissue laced through the meat, so I wanted to cook it a while to melt that stuff, while still keeping it mediumish inside. A sous vide treatment seemed like the thing to try, and I can't think of sous vide without thinking of Amy's sauna steak, and that led me to think: what's a sauna? A warm, moist place. A sort of steam room. I have a sort of miniature steam room in my kitchen--it's called a bamboo steamer basket.
The plan, then: season the meat thoroughly with salt and pepper a couple of hours before cooking. Steam, very gently, until the meat was cooked through and tenderized, maybe 40 minutes? Grill on a very hot fire just long enough to sear it well. Brush with rhubarb-maple glaze, and burn that on. The results: very good, with room for improvement. The pork cooked a little more than I would have liked in the steamer. I should have erred on the side of undercooking, knowing that this could be corrected for in the grilling. I could, perhaps, have set the steamer holding the pork (on a plate, of course) over boiling water, and then just turned it off. That might have provided enough heat. I will try it again, as this first experiment produced meat that was definitely different, and in some ways superior, in terms of texture, to straight grilled pork.
Here's my rhubarb-maple glaze, tart-sweet, a little hot with sambal:
1/2 cup sliced rhubarb
1/2 cup rhubarb juice
1/2 teaspoon sambal chili paste
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
Bring to a boil in a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain, then return the liquid to the saucepan and reduce by about half, until it begins to coat the back of a spoon. The glaze will taste quite sour and astringent on its own, but those qualities will be balanced when it's brushed on the meat.
To round out the plate we served couscous that we started by sautéing a little shallot in a small saucepan, along with some chopped dried apple. After the couscous steamed we mixed in some of those wonderful hickory nuts, toasted. And finally, a few flash-grilled ramps, which were excellent:
The ramps were tossed with olive oil, lemon juice (suppose I could have used rhubarb...), salt and pepper, at least 30 minutes prior to cooking. Then they just went on the very hot grill for a couple of minutes. Even the blackest parts were delicious; the parts that were really and truly burnt just powdered away.
Here concludes the tale of a wonderful dinner, via a roundabout route with many detours and a few cul-de-sacs. A lot of words for one plate of food, some would say, but hey, that's what we do here.
* David Bouley's East of Paris, is in this same category for me; interestingly, Amy Thielen worked for Bouley in New York, and worked on East of Paris.
** And what about the possibilities of sorrel juice--sorrel being rhubarb's green cousin? I always wish the sorrel sauce I serve with grilled or fried trout could be more sorrel-y, and I'll bet an injection of sorrel juice would do the job.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw