The tart taste of rhubarb transports me to my childhood home on Spokane’s South Hill. A huge, leafy plant sprawled against the fence in our backyard. My dad would hand me a sun-warmed stalk and I’d dip it into a smattering of sugar and munch away.
Perhaps if I’d known I was eating a vegetable the thrill might have worn off. But in my ignorance I happily spooned my mom’s rhubarb preserves over pancakes and slurped rhubarb sauce straight from the pot as soon as it cooled.
My love of the sour stuff hasn’t abated. So I’m happy to see it coming into its own this time of year on local restaurant menus – and not just mixed with strawberries and baked into a pie.
Appetizer at Latah Bistro
Latah Bistro chef Brian Hutchins also has fond rhubarb recollections. “It’s one of the things I remember from childhood,” he said. He incorporates it into his menus as soon as it’s in season.
Currently, he’s serving rhubarb agrodolce with the pantry plate. Agrodolce, a sweet and sour sauce featured in Italian cuisine, makes a brilliant condiment for the salty charcuterie plate. Hutchins adds rhubarb to simple syrup made with vinegar and brown sugar, and serves it alongside his country pate made of Berkshire pork and goose liver, spicy coppa salumi and grilled rustic bread. Ale mustard serves as a secondary condiment. Everything is made in-house with local ingredients.
“It’s a bright condiment – a mixture of sweet and really tart,” Hutchins said.
Cocktails at Clover
Across town at Clover, rhubarb makes an unexpected appearance in a cocktail, dubbed the Rhubarb Daisy. I’m not a fan of gin, but when I took my husband to Clover for his birthday, I couldn’t resist the rhubarb lure.
Clover’s bar manager, Kristi Gamble, said, “We try to focus on making everything in-house.” That includes the rhubarb syrup, key to the Daisy and its nonalcoholic counterpart the Rhubarb Ricky.
Gamble said, “A Daisy is a classic style of drink made with crushed ice. It’s fruity, vibrant and refreshing.”
I’ll vouch for that. The Rhubarb Daisy converted a non-gin-drinker like me with one sweet/tart sip. A blend of gin, lemon juice and house-made rhubarb syrup and grenadine, the Rhubarb Daisy tickled my palate. Gamble says the restaurant plans to add a rhubarb crisp to its dessert menu later this summer.
Main dish at Santé
But before heading to desserts, you don’t want to miss rhubarb’s appearance on the savory side of the menu. At Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie, chef Jeremy Hansen blends the tartness of rhubarb with the smooth creaminess of butter and pairs it with the light flakiness of black cod.
“Rhubarb works well with fish,” he said. “It’s got an acidic profile like lemon. We spoon it over the cod.”
Hansen enjoys a slice of baguette topped with brie and a spoonful of rhubarb jam or compote. “I love it,” he said. “We do jams, preserves, chutney …” The restaurant often offers its signature basil ice cream topped with strawberry rhubarb sauce.
Dessert at Madeleine’s
A recent influx of rhubarb at Madeleine’s Café & Patisserie prompted pastry chef Alicia Purvis-Lariviere to get creative. Forsaking the traditional strawberries, she tossed raspberries, rhubarb and a vanilla bean with sugar and baked it into what she calls “delicious raspberry rhubarb goo.”
That goo, or compote, is now featured in everything from scones to strudel. “I was never a fan of rhubarb till I found the raspberry, rhubarb, vanilla bean combo,” said Purvis-Lariviere. “Now, this compote is my favorite.”
It will soon find new use on the restaurant’s upcoming summer menu, which will feature rotating ice cream sandwiches. Those cool treats will include a soft lemon poppy seed cookie filled with strawberry rhubarb ice cream and topped with raspberry rhubarb compote.
All the rhubarb research made me itch to get into the kitchen and whip up one of my favorite desserts – my mom’s Rhubarb Custard Cake. One bite of this sweet tart cake takes me back to childhood and the tang of ripe rhubarb on my tongue. Never has eating my veggies tasted so good.
Rhubarb Custard Cake
1 box yellow or white cake mix
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup sugar
2 cups whipping cream
Mix cake mix according to directions on box and pour into 9-by-13-inch greased pan.
Arrange rhubarb evenly over the top of uncooked cake. Sprinkle sugar evenly over rhubarb. Pour unwhipped cream over rhubarb. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Cool and then chill and keep in refrigerator, so that the custard sets up. The cream, sugar and rhubarb will go to the bottom of the pan forming a custardlike layer.
Yield: 12-15 servings
From Brian Hutchins, executive chef at Latah Bistro
2 cups cane sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 cup cider vinegar
2 pounds fresh rhubarb, 1/2-inch diced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of sea salt
Combine sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook without stirring (to avoid crystallizing the sugar) until lightly caramelized. Remove from heat and add the vinegar. Bring to a simmer and reduce by one-third. Add the rhubarb and bring up to a boil. Remove from heat immediately to retain some texture. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Add a pinch of salt.
Yield: About 1 quart
Raspberry Rhubarb Compote
From Alicia Purvis-Lariviere, pastry chef at Madeleine’s Café & Patisserie
1 cup fresh raspberries
2 cups rhubarb, washed and chopped into about 1-inch chunks
2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine raspberries and rhubarb in a bowl and sprinkle sugar on top. With a knife, split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds out into the mixture, and toss the bean in as well. Gently toss mixture together until everything is coated in sugar. Bake in a covered casserole dish (foil or a lid both work) for about 30 minutes, until the rhubarb chunks are soft and just about to break down into mush. Remove vanilla bean. Serve on ice cream, as cake filling, or as a cobbler.
Yield: About 2 cups
Rhubarb Simple Syrup
From The Paupered Chef, www.thepauperedchef.com. Use rhubarb stalks that are red for best results.
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
6 or 7 stalks rhubarb, ends trimmed and removed, chopped
Pour water into a medium-size saucepan. Turn the heat to high and add the sugar. Bring to a boil, whisking occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Add as much of the rhubarb as will fit and still be covered by the simple syrup. Bring to a boil again, and then turn down to medium-low. Simmer until rhubarb is very tender, about 10 minutes. It should easily break apart with a fork. Turn off heat and let mixture cool to room temperature. Strain mixture into another bowl, pressing on the rhubarb solids to get as much liquid out as possible. Discard the solids.
Store simple syrup in the refrigerator.
2 ounces gin
1 ounce rhubarb syrup
3/4 ounce lemon juice
In a shaker, combine gin, rhubarb syrup and lemon. Shake with ice and then strain into a glass with fresh ice. Top with club soda. Serve.
Yield: 1 serving
Rhubarb Butter Sauce for Halibut
Adapted from Bainbridge Island chef Greg Atkinson’s cookbook, “In Season,” published by Sasquatch Books, 1997. Serve with baked halibut.
2 stalks rhubarb, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup off-dry white wine, such as riesling or gewurztraminer
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 pinch salt and pepper
1 cup cold, unsalted butter, in 1-inch chunks
In a small saucepan, combine rhubarb, wine, sugar, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. Over high heat, boil mixture rapidly until rhubarb is soft and reduced to about 1/4 cup. Whisk butter into the boiling rhubarb mixture, a few pieces at a time. Serve immediately or keep warm until serving.
Yield: 4 servings