Radical rhubarb: This spring treat can do more than flavor pies

Steve Peters / Photo

By Steve Peters
Rutland Bites

I admit that I haven’t always loved rhubarb. It’s honestly kind of a weird food. It looks a bit like celery, can be stringy and tough, is somewhat unpleasant raw and is at its best when paired up with other flavors. On its own, I find rhubarb to be an acquired taste and one that isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off. Yet, with the right match, there is much to offer.

The most famous of rhubarb’s culinary companions is the strawberry. I don’t deny that this is a tasty seasonal combination. But you don’t actually need strawberries to enjoy rhubarb. Maybe it’s my aversion to sticking with tradition. Maybe it’s that I think we should cook outside the box. Yet, 90 percent of recipes featuring rhubarb also involve strawberries. As my friends’ two-year-old would ask: why?

In fact, despite its tanginess, I refuse to believe that you need a crazy amount of sweetness to make rhubarb palatable. Not only are most recipes for rhubarb paired with strawberries, they’re loaded up with sugar. Nothing against the farmer who sold me the rhubarb and assumed I would be making a pie. And certainly nothing against Prince Harry and his new wife, who served their wedding guests rhubarb tartlets this past weekend. I’m just saying that rhubarb doesn’t have to be made super sweet to enjoy, even if that’s where we’re immediately inclined to go.

When it comes to rhubarb, all you need is a good mix of flavors to complement the uniqueness of this perennial springtime vegetable and its fruit-like attributes. If you opt to go in the sweet direction, I don’t blame you, I just suggest evaluating the amount of sugar in your recipe. If it seems unreasonable, then cut back, maybe just a little at first, and see what you think. Doing so will allow the flavor of the rhubarb to stand out a bit more, while also helping you avoid a few empty calories. Especially if you do pair rhubarb with strawberries, don’t forget that strawberries are already quite sweet themselves.

And then, you could take rhubarb in an entirely different direction. Oddly enough, the sourness of the rhubarb does well to cut the fattiness of meat, such as pork. Rhubarb also takes on spices, such as ginger, surprisingly well. With that in mind, a chutney makes for an unusually great use of rhubarb. A little sweet, a little tart and with lots of spice, rhubarb chutney is the perfect accompaniment to a grilled pork chop this time of year. With an extra apple hanging around, I threw that into the mix. While the rhubarb cooked down into an applesauce consistency, the apple remained firm and provided some crunch. The vinegar added more sour notes, while the red pepper flakes offered just a tiny amount of spice.

Cooking this chutney was a symbolic transition into early summer. It incorporated a local apple, a fall/winter fruit that got me through the past many months. It also included both rhubarb and asparagus, vegetables that signify spring is here. And it was the first time I cooked on the grill this season. Unfortunately, in the process of cooking dinner, I had the realization that I’m desperately in need of a new grill.

The window of time on fresh rhubarb is short. While I tried it savory this week, I already have a rhubarb crumble recipe picked out for next time. Ice cream is another one of my favorites. If you can, find a friend with a rhubarb patch who will allow you to divide some up and plant it in your own yard. That way you’ll never miss out on rhubarb season. Don’t forget that rhubarb freezes particularly well, and you might want to save some to pair with the fruits of late summer.

Rhubarb apple chutney with grilled pork chops

Serves 4

For the chutney:

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 pound rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 apple, chopped
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 1/3 cup raisins

For the pork chops:

  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat the sugar, vinegar, ginger and spices over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Then add the rhubarb, apple, onion and raisins and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, until the rhubarb has cooked down and the onions are soft. Taste and adjust to your liking. While the chutney cooks, get your pork chops ready.

In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, olive oil, ginger and pepper. Lightly brush the pork chops with the soy sauce mixture. Preheat your grill to 400 degrees. Place the pork chops on the grill, cover, lower the heat slightly and cook for about 10 minutes. Then flip the chops over and cook another 5 minutes or until they reach 155 degrees.

Remove the pork chops from the grill and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes. Serve with plenty of chutney and a side of spring vegetables, such as some quick pan-seared asparagus.

Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, April 1994

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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