Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rhubarb Chutney


It’s spring.  All of a sudden.  Spring.  Purple crocuses poke out of their winter hiding spots, the tips of tree branches blush the rosy red of new growth, and through my open window floats a fresh, warm air carrying a murmur of chirping birds and a smell of pure heaven.  Ah, that smell.  I don’t even know what it is, exactly. Is it the freshly thawed earth?  Or the new, green life springing out of it?  One thing I do know is that it’s magical.  It’s as if with one breath, all the springs of my past come whooshing back to me, and I’m instantly filled with a singular sense of joy and contentment, the same sense of wonder I’ve felt every spring of my life. 

And so on the wave of this new spring air, we gladly drift away from winter’s hearty provisions, and find ourselves immersed in the glories of spring’s bounty- strawberries and asparagus, artichokes and lamb, fava beans and fiddlehead ferns, peas and rhubarb.  It is rhubarb that I’ve found myself especially immersed in today.

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Rhubarb is one of my favorite spring ingredients. The color alone is sensational.  The raw stems are painted with streaks of crisp red and wisps of pale green.  As the rhubarb cooks, this red transforms into a glowing pink that’s nearly luminescent, a hue that’s somehow soft yet bright at the same time, and somehow rosier than even roses.  And the flavor is something to go on and on about too!  The perfect illustration of tartness, rhubarb is beautifully sour.  And it’s a soft sourness, not harsh and puckery like the sourness of lemons, but rounded out by floral tones and hints of raw spices.  It’s a bright, candid taste but with a shadow of complexity – mimicking its color, bright yet soft at the same time. 


Wild rhubarb used to grow along the edges of the woods behind our house.  We nicknamed it elephant ears, because its large, floppy green leaves looked like just that.  These huge acoustic leaves are actually poisonous.  The part of the rhubarb plant we eat is the stem, and this qualifies rhubarb as a vegetable, alongside other stems like celery and asparagus.  Just as tomatoes are fruits that are treated more like vegetables, rhubarb is a veggie that often gets treated a lot like a fruit.  And not a regular fruit, but a specifically dessert kind of fruit.  Rhubarb pies and tarts and crisps and crumbles.  It’s often combined with other fruits, like strawberries and such, which makes for fantastic combinations of sweet and sour.  But rhubarb has so much potential outside of the dessert world.  We need to start thinking outside of the pie!  So today I took a savory route, making rhubarb chutney.  Sour and sweet, and a little bit spicy, this sauce can be applied in a myriad of non-dessert applications.  But more on that later…


Chutney is a word for a sweet and spicy Indian condiment, usually made of fruits, sugar, spices and vinegar.   Adding a punch of bright flavor to traditional dishes, it’s regularly served alongside Indian curries.  The chutney I made today has a sour background of vinegar and rhubarb, layered with sweet red onion, golden raisins and just a bit of sugar.  A swirl of spices – ginger, chile, cinnamon and orange zest – wrap everything together into a beautiful sauce exploding with flavor. 


I made ten jars of this tasty stuff, and my head’s so full of fun uses for it, I’m hoping there’ll be some left to give away!  It’s an automatic excuse for a curry dinner – I’m thinking perhaps yellow-curry shrimp, with wilted spinach, chewy black rice and basil raita.  But it would be wonderful too, topping a grilled chicken sandwich with crusty bread, arugula and extra-sharp cheddar.  Or just with cheddar itself, as a cheese course or hors d’oeuvre.  Or served alongside sea scallops or sliced duck breast, or…  The season for rhubarb is just too short, with so many tempting ideas!  I wish every year that spring would last and last, but it always ends up turning into summer all to quickly.  I hope I can hold onto at least a couple of these jars, and keep a little bit of spring with me throughout the rest of the year. 


Rhubarb Chutney 
Makes about 2 1/2 cups   

about 2 # rhubarb
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbl minced fresh ginger
3-inch strip of orange zest, thinly sliced *
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup diced red onion

Wash the rhubarb under cool running water.  Using a knife, trim off any leaves or blemishes on the stem.  Slice length-wise down the middle of the stem, cutting the stem into two long and equal pieces.  Slice these halved stems width-wise into half-inch slices.  (This should yield about 4-5 cups sliced rhubarb.)  Set aside.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, cinnamon, ginger, orange zest and pepper flakes in a medium sauce pot.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes.  Add the prepped rhubarb, the golden raisins and the diced red onion.  Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to keep at a bare simmer until the rhubarb is just tender, about 5 minutes.  Cool, and store refrigerated in an air-tight container, up to one week.  Or follow a basic canning procedure to keep them at room temperature. 

* Slice a strip of zest, about 1-inch wide by 3-inches long,  from the orange with a vegetable peeler, then using a knife, cut the strip width-wise into very thin slices. 


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