I wasn’t very familiar with rhubarb until a few years ago when I founded the Eat-In-Season Restaurant Challenge. Subsequently, as chair of the Challenge committee, I hosted a breakfast to introduce the concept to the press. For this event, my own challenge was to come up with a menu using foods that were in-season in Maryland during the month of May. Obvious choices would have been asparagus, ramps, fiddlehead ferns or wild watercress. A less obvious and certainly more challenging choice was rhubarb, an under-appreciated spring vegetable that typically shows up in sweet foods like cobblers, puddings, jams, chutneys (and, of course, the ubiquitous pie). Could rhubarb work as a key ingredient in a breakfast dish that the press would appreciate and enjoy? I decided to find out.
My first experiment with rhubarb was to test a few simple ingredients. I braised rhubarb in water and when it was tender, I added sugar and ginger. After a quick and satisfying taste, I knew I was on the right track, so I spooned it over creamy vanilla yogurt, topped the concoction with crispy granola and called it rhubarb parfait, each serving in its own dish. At the breakfast event for the Eat in Season Restaurant Challenge, members of the press savored the flavor and complemented the beautiful combination of colors and rich textures as well as the healthy ingredients. For the second experiment, I added chopped rhubarb to one of my favorite cake batter recipes. The result was a surprisingly moist and delicious tasting cake.
Regarded at one time as a digestive curative, and more recently as a good ingredient in various cocktails, rhubarb has had many incarnations. Inspired by the success of my first two rhubarb experiments, I’ve continued investigating possible uses of this tart-tasting vegetable and possible combinations with other ingredients to create new and appealing spring dishes. Along the way, I’ve found that rhubarb has diverse uses: It can be braised and turned into a mixture like applesauce, transformed into upside down cake, juiced and added to smoothies, turned into refreshing ruby-colored granita, and like many other fruits and vegetables, it can successfully be added to pancake and muffin batter and included in coffee cake mixes. I haven’t set out to make a simple syrup out of rhubarb – but maybe I will this season, because I’ve read the Rhubarb Collins is the 21st century cocktail, replacing the Tom Collins of the 60s!
Gingered Rhubarb Sauce
Gingered Rhubarb Sauce is delicious spooned over strawberry ice cream or vanilla yogurt. For an unusual breakfast idea, serve rhubarb parfaits like I served to the press; fill tulip-shaped glasses with vanilla yogurt, and top with rhubarb sauce and granola. This versatile sauce can also be served as a condiment (just as you would applesauce) with grilled chicken, pork and crispy duck. The resulting mixture makes a great compote to be strewn over pound cake or ice cream.
4 cups sliced (¼-inch thick) rhubarb
½ cup water
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
Place rhubarb and water in a medium saucepan. The ratio of water to rhubarb may seem disproportionate, but too much water will result in a watery sauce. Over moderate heat, cook rhubarb for about 15–20 minutes or until tender. Stir every 5–10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and ginger. Serve warm or at room temperature.
About 4 cups
This cake is extraordinarily moist, and if I hadn’t been the person assembling the ingredients, I would have never guessed that tart tasting rhubarb was one of the primary ingredients.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
½ cup sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely diced rhubarb (about ½ pound)
½ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a 13 x 9-inch baking pan. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In a large bowl, beat butter with white and brown sugar. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until slightly fluffy. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk and beat until well combined. Fold in rhubarb. Transfer cake batter to baking pan, spreading evenly. In a small bowl, toss walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon. Distribute mixture evenly over cake and bake for 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.