26 May 2012

Sweet Rhubarb

I've had rhubarb on my mind for a year now since I first tasted it.  How have I lived in Illinois my whole life and never tried rhubarb?!  It's an easily grown perennial in the Midwest, yet somehow I'm more familiar with squid, artichokes, and olives.  That may be a commentary on my culinary heritage or a commentary on the importance of the local food movement.  Regardless, rhubarb was new to me when we moved to the country; I was excited to have the abundant ingredient. 

first pick of the season

Last summer was dedicated to familiarizing myself with rhubarb.  I made crisps, cocktails, cupcakes, tarts, and crumb bars all summer and winter too with preserved rhubarb puree.  With this second crop, the experiments have started and won't come to an end until those red stalks and large green leaves are gone for the season.

Highlighted titles are links to original recipes.  My recipes are included below dessert pictures.  Here we go:

1. Rhubarb Mousse

This is my first independent rhubarb creation.  Surely I'm not the first to do this, but I've never come across it before.  My sister and I came up with the recipe.  I wanted something light with a delicate rhubarb flavor, not overly sweet.  It's perfect for summer nights: no oven required and can be made ahead of time and chilled for a refreshing finish to a meal.  It would also be lovely in a tart or little white chocolate cups with a strawberry garnish.

a perfect four-bite dessert in an espresso cup

Rhubarb Mousse

2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 packet plain gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoon confectioners sugar

Place chopped rhubarb and sugar in non-reactive pot.  Macerate over night.  Add water and bring to a boil.  Boil until liquid is very pink and rhubarb is limp.  Taste to ensure desired sweetness.  Strain.  Stir in gelatin and allow to cool to room temperature.  Whip heavy cream and confectioners sugar in mixer to almost whipped cream consistency--not stiff peak stage, but very frothy consistency.  Fold in rhubarb-gelatin mixture.  Pour in serving bowls and chill.

2. Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

This is the recipe if you are a cake-lover.  I expected this to be just another sweet and tart rhubarb dessert, but the brown sugar topping adds a caramel dimension that really kicks it up a notch.  There's also something kind of theatrical about it, all those ruby rhubarb jewels peeking out.   My only change: next time I'll omit the citrus.  It distracted from the rhubarb. 

3.  Red Wine-Poached Rhubarb

This is really delicious, like insanely delicious.  I didn't expect to even like this let alone love it.  I wanted to try some recipes that preserve the integrity of the rhubarb.  Most elicit an end product that doesn't look anything like the original stalk, which is understandable because it is difficult to keep rhubarb intact while making it edible.  Poaching rhubarb requires a close eye to ensure it is tender, but not falling apart.  This recipe is worth the caution.  My husband labeled it one of the top five desserts he's ever had.  That's especially impressive because he couldn't name the other four.

Note: I didn't use allspice berries or cloves simply because I didn't have them.  Still fantastic. 

4.  Roasted Rhubarb

This recipe is in the same vein as the last.  I'm partial to the red wine-poached approach because I don't particularly like citrus (and I particularly like red wine), but this taught me the wonder of the rhubarb-vanilla pairing.  If you like citrus in your dessert, try this one.  If not, try the former.   Both are great with whipped cream, creme fraiche, or ice cream.  I love the idea of a large platter full of roasted or poached rhubarb to pass around the table family-style.  They can be served warm or at room temperature. 

Remember to strain citrus zest. Clearly, I forgot.

5.  Rhubarb Tarts

I love tarts. They have a homey pie flavor in a sophisticated package.  After trying the above poached/roasted recipes, I wanted to create a tart that included rhubarb that looks like rhubarb.  Coincidentally, La Cucina Italiana featured this strawberry ricotta tart in the May/June issue.  I thought it would be nice to try with rhubarb in place of strawberries.  It turned out beautifully and was a lovely addition to my grandmother-in-law's birthday tea celebration.  I can't say I'd make it again because the rhubarb pieces are a bit cumbersome when eating, but it was definitely worth a shot.  The rhubarb was very good with the ricotta filling.  And it's really pretty.

cooled and assembled tart dripping syrup allover my tablecloth

Rhubarb Ricotta Tart

Follow instructions above for Strawberry Ricotta Tart.  I omitted lemon zest--I think I've mentioned my feelings about citrus.  I also omitted the orange flower water--like I have that sitting around in my kitchen.  I substituted a teaspoon of vanilla.  The rhubarb is poached in its own juice and a little water. Then I added sugar to the liquid, reduced it to a syrup, and poured it on top, but one could use the Red Wine-Poached Rhubarb or Roasted Rhubarb.

Although it's not as pretty as the Rhubarb Ricotta Tart, this basic Vanilla-Rhubarb Jam Tart is really good and it's very easy to make--probably a better use of time for the end product.  It's the same crust cooled and filled with a simple vanilla-rhubarb jam and garnished with whipped cream.  It's a great winter dessert because the jam filling can be canned or frozen for later use. 

Jam tarts are beautiful dessert centerpieces: colorful and glossy.

Vanilla-Rhubarb filling:

3 cups chopped rhubarb, 1/2 inch dices
1.5 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp best vanilla extract

Cover chopped rhubarb with sugar in non-reactive pot and allow to macerate overnight.  Add water and bring to boil.  Simmer until pieces are tender and mixture is reduced to a nice jammy consistency.  Add vanilla and simmer for a minute or two more. Cool and spoon into cooled tart shell.  Garnish with homemade whipped cream or ice cream. 

Note:  this would probably be even better if made with a vanilla bean, which I did not have access to at the time of recipe.  Use vanilla bean instructions from Roasted Rhubarb recipe.

6.  Rhubarb Pies

I'm not a true pie fan.  They're messy to make; they're messy to eat.  People who grew up eating pie love them, so I make them.  I'll admit that traditional rhubarb pie is good, and it makes you feel like you've really embraced the season.  I just use Betty Crocker's recipe.  Nothing fancy.  Despite my general feelings towards the genre, I make a mean pie and the secret is the crust: I use lard.  Lard has an undeserved bad reputation.  Sure, industrial hydrogenized lard is unhealthy, but so is industrial hydrogenized anything, including vegetable shortening and oil--don't get me started.  Properly raised and rendered lard has nutritious properties and it's delicious.  It makes a pie taste like grandma's--not my grandmas.  My grandmas don't make pie.  They make pizzelles and kolackys.  But people have told me my crust tastes like the ones their grandmas made back in the day when real lard and butter were staples in the Midwest kitchen.  Bottom line, rhubarb pie is delicious if you're into pie.  It's even better depending on the quality of the fat in the crust.

Damn Good Pie Crust (for two-crust pie)

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup 2 Tbsp lard, the real stuff
4 Tbsp milk (water is fine too)

Whisk flour and salt together in large bowl.  Cut in lard with pastry cutter until pea-sized.  Add each tablespoon of milk and toss mixture until it begins to adhere and forms a single mass.  Sometimes it needs more or less liquid.  Don't handle too much or it will become tough.  Divide in half, press into disks, and cover with plastic wrap.  Chill in fridge until 20 minutes before rolling our dough for pie.

Sour Cream Rhubarb Pie is a slight variation on the traditional.  Again, not something I would include in my standard repartoire, but if you or your family are pie traditionalists, it's a nice alternative to your regular recipe.  This is a one crust pie.  If using the above pie crust recipe, cut in half.

7.  Rhubarb Gelato

My best rhubarb creation yet, rhubarb gelato is a prime example of the merging of Midwest rural and Italian.  Gelato is different than ice cream in that it uses more milk in the base.  It also relies more heavily on ingredient flavors than sugar and butterfat.  Oddly enough, I couldn't find a traditional gelato recipe that included rhubarb.  The one I came up with worked very well.  Upon first bite it was immediately inducted into my rhubarb recipe standards.    

Now that's a gorgeous gelato!

Rhubarb Gelato

3 cups finely diced rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1.5 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar

Allow rhubarb to macerate in 1 cup sugar overnight in non-reactive pot.  Bring to a boil in its own juices until syrupy.  Cool.  Whip 1/2 cup sugar and egg yolks in mixer until frothy.  In a separate pot, heat milk and cream until tiny bubbles form around the edge.  Do not boil.  Remove from heat.  Temper egg mixture by slowly mixing in a few ladles of warm milk.  Then slowly whisk egg mixture into pot of milk and cream over low heat.  Stir over low heat until thick and mixture coats the back of a spoon.  Chill mixture for at least several hours.  This gives you time to wash every dish in your house that this recipe requires.  Incorporate chilled rhubarb sauce into chilled gelato base and add to ice cream machine according to manufacturers instructions.  Transfer ice cream to freezer-safe container and chill for at least an hour before serving.  I know it's a lot of steps.  If you love rhubarb and you love gelato, I promise, it's worth it.

This little crazy-toothed girl of mine loves rhubarb.  She eats it raw.

I'm excited to finally be acquainted with rhubarb. We've had a good first year together: a lot of hits and very few misses among the couple dozen experiments. Maybe it's our honeymoon period. Maybe I'm a sucker for new flavors. Maybe I'm easily persuded by a tart redhead. Or maybe it just tastes a heck of a lot better in gelato than squid, artichoke, or olive.

22 May 2012

Busy May

May is planting month.  We're busy.  Here's what's happening:

Nick planted asparagus crowns,

Asparagus crowns are quite the process.

cucumbers and string beans,

We're trying cucumber and bean tee pees this year.


Zucchini is planted in mounds.

and he built me this great raised planter for Mother's Day.

This is for partial-shade plants: spearmint, peppermint, onion chives, garlic chives, hyssop, lamb's ear.

He also put in sweet mace, dill, and a second planting of chard.

I've been working on beans, lots and lots of shell beans: garbanzo, Ireland Creek Annie, and Tiger's Eye. 

bean rows

Tilling the rows by hand takes forever.  Pulling out the grubs to give to the chickens takes even longer.  What I thought would be two days of work last Monday still is not finished.  To distract myself from the beans, I also put in two types of Italian parsley, cilantro, more beets and radish, black cumin, and tatsoi.

There's lots of weeding, watering, and organic pesticide tea for the larvae and creatures that are eating my peas and beet tops.

garlic-hot pepper concoction

Between planting and weeding and mulching and spraying and tilling and watering and collecting grubs, there is still some time for a few culinary projects.  My chives were in full blossom when I came across this recipe for chive blossom vinegar.  It was worth it if for the color alone.  I haven't tried it yet; it needs to infuse for at least several days longer.  It already smells oniony delicious.

chive blossom vinegar

Our overwintered swiss chard is in its prime.  I've been waiting all year to try Pitta con Verdura after seeing a beautiful picture of it in my favorite cookbook, My Calabria, by Rosetta Cosentino.  It's a simple pizza bread stuffed with chard and herbs, and it's going straight to the top of the spring recipe list.  So good.

whole pitta

in slices

I had to get a few arugula dishes in before it bolts.

perfect meal for one: arugula with olive oil and shaved parmagiano, good bread, sauvignon blanc
arugula, prosciutto, parmagiano pizza

There have been lots of rhubarb experiments.  This one is particularly good.

rhubarb gelato

Our garden options will soon expand.

romaine sprouts

onion sprouts


peas flowering and climbing

We also have a few fun summer additions to the yard.

My sister-in-law made me these awesome yard torches for Mother's Day.  Great addition for summer evenings.

hammock and swing

This is my favorite thing to see after getting a row or two of beans in.

view from hammock

back to planting . . .

13 May 2012

To Mom

It's true.  Everything changes once you become a mother.  The shift in perspective is inescapable.  For me that means the cringing has just begun.  The glorious, abhorring, heartwarming, frightening confusion that is motherhood is a gift and a curse:  nothing is more wondrous than watching your child grow; nothing is more appalling than reflecting on your childhood behavior through the lens of a mother.  Upon becoming a parent, one learns how truly deficient language is.  How could we not have a single, graceful word that conveys thank you and I'm sorry at once?

I could thank my mother for many things from her strength to her talents, but in the spirit of this blog, thank you, Mother, for your gifts among many in the kitchen and garden:

Thank you for talking to plants.
Thank you for making my baby food.
Thank you for hot breakfasts every morning.
Thank you for homemade dinners every night.
Thank you for lavender lemonade, even though none of us drank it.
Thank you for baking with us.
Thank you for having a garden, even though we couldn't have cared less.
Thank you for cooking real food.
Thank you for lemon basil in our salad, even though we thought it tasted like Pledge.
Thank you for making us all eat the same dinner.
Thank you for drinking really good wine.
Thank you for your french toast.
Thank you for pasta puttanesca.  Really. Thank you.
Thank you for finding recipes you have to try.
Thank you for making dinner an event.
Thank you for putting strange things in your mouth, even if it's the occasional discarded olive pit.
Thank you for multiple meats.
Thank you for your unabashed love for flowers.  We always had the prettiest yard on the block.
Thank you for showing us the value of the gourmet restaurant and the dive.
Thank you for drinking beer.  I know that probably doesn't sound good, but I appreciate it.
Thank you for saying hello to the birds on the porch every morning in spring.
Thank you for making our kitchen island the most exciting place in the universe.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  I love you.

wild geranium

10 May 2012

State of the 'Stead in Photos, May

The homesteading projects are a work in progress.  Here's what's happening:

The bees are busy in their new hive.

They have almost filled their first box.

The chickens will soon be out of the brooder box.

Cornish Cross

We are harvesting cool weather crops.

Sanguine Ameliore lettuce
standard arugula
The misticanza di radicchi, or mesclun mix, is starting to fill in.
The gourmet wild arugula has young, tender leaves.
Heads of Winter Density lettuce are coming up.

Marveille de Quatre Saison lettuce has become a standard in our cool weather garden.

The color of the Slobolt lettuce is fantastic.

first radish planting
Bull's Blood beets


Unfortunately, something has been eating our peas, so the trellises are still bare.  Hopefully we'll get some.  I've been looking forward to spicy pickled snap peas since last year.

The garlic we planted last fall is getting big.  We'll have scapes soon!

one of three garlic beds

We also have several surprises:

rogue onions that are going to seed the second season

Chives (I forgot about them)
The experimental wormwood overwintered to form a lovely absinthey hedge.

This very hardy Tango lettuce made it through the winter
along with a few spinach and chard plants.
The fall rutabaga (yellow flowers), black Spanish radish (pale purple flowers), and parsnip sprouted and bolted.

My main responsibility in the garden right now is mulching.

I have to turn this
into this.

In the process, I've found a few of these.

Moving on . . .

The rhubarb patch is productive.

We allowed one to go to seed.

The plants we started from seed will soon be ready to transplant.

a few seedlings

I'm spending less time down by the creek and more time in the garden, but on our most recent walk we found these brightly-colored wild columbines.

The outer petals are typically light pink, but these were vermilion.

May is a very busy planting month.  In the next several weeks all of our summer crops will be in.

Gardening is a spectator sport in our house.

It's a great time of year.  We have the whole summer ahead of us.  And for five minutes, I can sincerely believe that I'll have a nice, tidy, organized garden.

Site of future July jungle