Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Tart Is Good!": Ode on Rhubarb and A Wild Spin on Rhubarb Chutney

Kim Ode (pron. OH-dee) was in our neighborhood last weekend to present a demo and talk about cooking with rhubarb, which has become her tart, seasonal calling card since she published Rhubarb Renaissance, the first title in the  Northern Plate series from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, in 2012.  Kim charmed a full house with stories about her rhubarb journey, from being gulled by a devious cousin into taking a big bite of a raw, naked stalk in her South Dakota childhood, to discovering the affinities and aversions of culinary rhubarb (ginger and shrimp, yes; beef, not so much).  As someone who has presented a few cooking demos and classes, I was amazed by Kim’s ability to measure and mix ingredients for savory rhubarb and cheese biscuits—a fairly precise formulation—all the while keeping up a calm, conversational patter in front of nearly 30 people.  When I expressed my admiration for her on-stage calm and efficiency, she replied: “Well, there have been incidents…”.

Bide-A-While rhubarb patch

Several people in the audience mentioned that their rhubarb patches had been propagated from divisions gathered from a parent’s patch, or grandma’s garden, the family farmstead, which led me to think that that’s the true sense of an heirloom vegetable, one literally passed down from generation to generation, by hand.  And that may be why so many people have a sentimental attachment to rhubarb, and why they’re so grateful to Kim Ode for showing them how to take rhubarb beyond the typical strawberry-rhubarb concoctions (Kim included one, count it, exactly one rhubarb-strawberry recipe in her book).
In addition to the biscuits, which baked up brown and crusty, with the cheese and rhubarb dancing dos-si-dos in an appealingly chewy crumb, Kim mixed up a kale salad with pickled rhubarb.  I prepared a couple of Kim’s recipes to round out a rhubarbish buffet.  I made Gingery Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake, and in the course of preparing it, it occurred to me that I had never, ever, in my whole entire life, actually baked a cake from scratch.  How could this be?  And yet I swear it is so.  I sort of freaked out when that realization started to sink in—it was about the time I realized that the butter I was trying to cream with sugar should have been much softer, as it just glommed on to the beater and the sides of the bowl, and went dismally round and round, not becoming creamed and fluffy, at all.  But I forged ahead, and in the end it came out well, delicious, in fact—wh ich is a testament to a well-written recipe, if even a total neophyte bad at following instructions (moi) can have success.

And I made a rhubarb chutney that Kim suggests be served on crostini spread with a goat cheese-cream cheese blend and garnished with prosciutto.  I simplified by serving it on crackers and 86ing the ham.  It was fabulous, addictive, I dare say, sweet, tart, and spicy, flavored with ginger, garlic, and jalapeno, and bulked up with dried apricots.
It got me to thinking that I could easily substitute wild and local ingredients for some of the chutney components, to make it more Trout Caviar friendly.  So I made a batch back home in which I subbed maple syrup for the brown sugar, chopped ramps in place of garlic; dried apples from our trees took the place of the apricots, and some kick-ass fermented chile paste my friend Melinda gave me brought a throbbing heat.  My palate leans toward the savory more than the sweet, so I upped the tartness with extra rhubarb.  I firmly endorse Kim’s book-signing tagline:  “Tart is good!”

One other wild element:  little bits of peeled wood nettle stem gave some crunch to the chutney’s texture and made a nice color contrast, the pale green nettle nuggets playing against the pink background, reminiscent of the pink and green madras plaid sports jackets and shorts my preppie friends used to favor, back in the day.  Whatever happened to all the preppies (ou sont les preppies d’antan…?)?  Wood nettles are one of my favorite wild greens (I say this every year about this time).  You can use the leaves like any young greens, though they are delicate when young, so be careful not to overcook.  Then there are the stems which, when peeled—and they peel very easily—are crunchy crisp and mildly sweet, haricots verts du bois, if you will, or as I’m also wont to say, my favorite trailside crudité (goodness, I’m quite French-y and rhyme-y this morning!).

Not to overlook the obvious: wood nettles sting at least as vigorously as stinging nettles, and like stinging nettles, they lose their sting when exposed to heat, as in blanching in boiling water for a minute.

The result of my wild alterations to the chutney: quite, quite edible.  And beautiful.  We served it with some farmstead cheese from Cosmic Wheel Creamery, the new venture from Rama Hoffpauir and Josh Bryceson, growers at Turnip Rock Farm.  

Kim noted that in working the rhubarb circuit she has found that very few people are on the fence about rhubarb, that it’s generally love or hate.  But me, I’m still kind of in the middle.  I am by no means a rhubarb lover.  I find I don’t care much for the typical rhubarb desserts (I did enjoy my upside-down cake, but maybe that’s just baker’s vanity!).  My fondest rhubarb memories still center around the patch we had at my childhood home in Eden Prairie, and eating stalks nibble by nibble, each tiny bite equal parts sugar and rhubarb.  But I’m intrigued by its uses in savory applications, like this chutney, and I’ll probably experiment a bit more each spring.  Call me rhubarb-curious.
Forager's lunch on black cherry slab

This chutney is great in Kim’s original recipe, a dollop on a crostini or cracker first spread with a 1:1 mix of goat cheese and cream cheese.  It also nicely complements a well-flavored aged cheese, and, for what it’s worth, thinly sliced smoked venison.

Wild and Local Rhubarb Chutney (after Kim Ode & Rhubarb Renaissance)

1/3 cup maple syrup
2 cups rhubarb in 1" pieces
4 ramp bulbs minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger root minced
1/3 cup dried apples chopped small
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Pinch salt
Chile or sambal to taste, or chopped fresh jalapeno
1/4 cup wood nettle stems, peeled, chopped in 1/4" pieces

Combine all but nettle stems. Bring to a boil and stir until the rhubarb starts to break down and exude its juices (rhubarb is about 90%  water). Then simmer for 8-10 minutes, until it is thick and jammy. Add the nettle stems and cook 1 minute more. Cool thoroughly before serving. Best if made a few hours to a day ahead. Will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge.  Makes about 2 cups.

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Brett Laidlaw


Sara said...

This totally gave me the push I needed to make some pickles this morning for the kale salad, thanks! That recipe made me realize how much rhubarb can be used in ways that you would celery, adding crunch to salads. The quick pickles are good in chicken or potato salads too.

Bethany said...

Hey Brett...Bethany Saltman here. Coming to the twin cities first week in August. Looks like you're not there anymore? Too bad! I would love to say hi....your food like amazing, of course.