Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sweetest Vegetable

Me with two of my favorite things!

A great pleasure of Spring is the ruby red, celery-like, stalks of rhubarb gracing many a table at the Green City Market. A bridge between Winter’s scarcity and the full bloom of the growing season, rhubarb is a reintroduction of local sweetness, readying us for the flavor explosion that is strawberry season.

I am a late comer to the pleasures of rhubarb. It was never really part of my mom’s repertoire and so I’m pretty certain that I had never tried it prior to law school when I began to expand my culinary horizons by cooking through The New Basics, recipe by recipe. I quickly became a convert appreciating its vivid color and its versatility.

Although usually associated with desserts, rhubarb is actually a vegetable, one related to sorrel. Rhubarb is a perennial plant with rhizomes, leaves and most importantly, the edible petioles or stalks. I love to cook with rhubarb, watching it go from hard, green cored stalks into a velvety, pink-tinged mush. I also love its ability to be used in both sweet and savory dishes and I’ve used it as an agrodolce accompaniment to rich, full flavored meats, like pork and duck, as a tangy accompaniment to its fairer and fruitier partner, the strawberry, as well as the star of the show, especially when partnered with rich dairy as in crème brulees and cheesecakes. My two favorite recipes for rhubarb these days are Strawberry-Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream and Rye Crackers Topped with Smoked Duck and Rhubarb-Grapefruit Marmalade.

Thankfully, my son won’t have to wait twenty-plus years to enjoy the pleasures of rhubarb. Thanks to Farmer Pete of Seedling, yesterday morning, he enjoyed a seasonal smoothie at Green City Market of rhubarb, peach puree and mint, just one of the wonderful treats at the Market this year.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
For 6 servings

1 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch kosher salt
1 quart strawberries, hulled
3 stalks of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water

EQUIPMENT SUGGESTED: 2-quart saucepan, fine-mesh strainer, two medium-size bowls, potato masher or food processor, ice cream maker, shallow quart-size container with a lid.

Combine the milk and ¼ cup of sugar in the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. In the meantime, whisk together egg yolks and remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Remove the milk mixture from the heat and add about a half a cup to the egg yolk mixture while whisking constantly – this raises the temperature of the egg yolks, decreasing the likelihood that they will coagulate when heated. Add the yolk mixture to the hot milk while whisking constantly. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon distinctly. You’ll notice a slight increase in resistance of the liquid against the spoon while stirring. This could take between 7 and 12 minutes. Once thickened, pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl to remove any coagulated egg bits, which would make the ice cream grainy. Mix in heavy cream, vanilla extract and a pinch of kosher salt. Cover with plastic wrap and let the custard cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the custard until cold (approximately 4 hours). In the meantime, crush the strawberries with a potato masher or purée them in a food processor. Push through a fine mesh strainer. Add the purée to the custard base. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. While freezing, in a small saucepan, combine rhubarb, sugar and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool. When the ice cream is frozen, gently fold the rhubarb mixture to create a ribbon. Scrape the ice cream into a shallow container and freeze until firm.

Rye Crackers Topped with Smoked Duck, Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade

I created this recipe for a party that I catered for WGN at the Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show. It was in March and I wanted to feature recipes that felt like Spring even while it was still Winter. I used last year's Rhubarb-Grapefruit Marmalade, which is always the first preserve I make during the growing season.

Rye Crackers, I use hand made, but Nicole's Risky Rye is an excellent substitute
Smoked Duck Breast, thinly sliced Paulina Meat Market has excellent smoked duck
Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade
Fresh thyme

METHODS: Top a cracker with a slice of duck breast. Garnish with a dab of marmalade and a sprig of thyme.

Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade
Makes 8 + half-pint jars

Adaped from The Hay Day Cookbook.

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large pink grapefruits
3 cups granulated sugar

SPECIAL INGREDIENTS: non-reactive bowl; zester; medium saucepan; candy or laser thermometer; 6 half-pint canning jars.

METHODS: Put the rhubarb in a non-reactive bowl. Zest the grapefruit over the bowl. Halve them and squeeze the juice. Strain the juice and pour over the rhubarb. Add sugar and leave at room temperature overnight. Transfer the mixture to a medium size saucepan and bring it to a boil. While waiting for the mixture to come to a boil, sterilize the canning jars. Cook the rhubarb mixture, stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn the heat to high and cook until the temperature of the mixture reaches 224 degrees. Pour the marmalade into the hot, sterilized jars. Seal and let cool without letting the jars touch.

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