In the deep mid-winter of 2012, when the cold had snapped its fingers and there was no point trying to ski, my friend Sophia and I went for a power walk on the Millennium Trail, in downtown Whitehorse. While we walked, we talked--and what we talked about was rhubarb. Sophia was once a runner, but when she developed ankle trouble the joy of walking revealed itself to her. She joined a walking team in the Klondike Road Relay last September, and when the race was done her team celebrated the triumph of completion with a rhubarb Iron Chef dinner.
At this dinner, Sophia recalled as our boots crunched on the bridge over the Yukon River and we peered through the ice fog, each rhubarb dish trumped the last. There was a rhubarb-barley risotto, arugula salad with sliced, fresh young rhubarb stalks, rhubarb with pork tenderloin, rhubarb syrup over home- made ice cream, rhubarb liqueur--ten different, highly evolved iterations of rhubarb on the feasting table.
As we walked and talked, we yearned for spring, for that moment when the snow is still on the ground and the rhubarb thrusts its determined snout up through the hard earth and declares that winter is done.
Well, we survived the winter, and now spring is here. In tiny earth-filled pots in sunny rooms throughout the territory, young shoots bask in the afternoon heat, revving up for the transplant to the greenhouse or into the garden, while cooks and gardeners dream of the meals to come. But the rhubarb--the rhubarb is rarin’ to go right now, suggesting crisps and chutneys and salsas and salads. And if the gardener is diligent about pinching off the flower, the rhubarb will continue feeding the family (and relay teams) with sweets and savouries right into September. Indeed, if we’re not careful the rhubarb will take over, the situation currently unfolding in my yard, where dandelions and rhubarb duke it out every year, and the rhubarb is winning.
Whitehorse resident Christine Cleghorn is familiar with this predilection of rhubarb for world domination. She calls rhubarb “the J.R. Ewing of the backyard.” She, too, welcomes the first sighting of rhubarb. “It always shows up first,” she says, “usually right around the time I think the snow is never going to leave and I can't handle any more people complaining they can't ski anymore and the biking isn't good yet. Rhubarb kind of rides in and saves the day.”
Cleghorn is responsible for unearthing the rhubarb custard Pavlova recipe presented here, which she dug up from The Guardian, in May 2011. If she were invited to a rhubarb Iron Chef this is the dish she would bring. It’s a show stopper, folks, there’s no question, the kind of dish Cleghorn says makes your guests feel you’ve gone the extra mile. A dish even the insecure cook can feel confident in tackling because if it goes awry “you will have a giant jumble of meringue, custard, and rhubarb. There are worse things to be dealing with.” The pavlova, she concludes, is a striking, rather than a pretty, dish--“more like Alexis than Krystle.” (Yes, another 80's television reference.)
In this mini Iron Chef , inspired by walking with friends, northern gardens, and bad TV, we also have a versatile rhubarb chipotle salsa and, because I love goat from the Lendrum-Ross farm in Whitehorse, a goat and rhubarb stew adapted from a traditional Iranian dish, full of bright flavours. Cue the happy spring dance!
Rhubarb Chipotle Salsa
Great with fresh, crunchy vegetables or tortilla chips, or as a dipping sauce for grilled moose or caribou.
1 tbsp. (15 ml) olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. (25 ml) chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
4 cups (1 L) fresh or frozen chopped rhubarb
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. (2 ml) salt
Sauté onion in oil in a saucepan over medium heat until translucent (7 to 10 minutes). Add garlic, stir, and sauté another 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients to the saucepan, stir, and cook until rhubarb is tender (about 10 minutes). If rhubarb is fresh, you may need to add a tablespoon or so of water or lemon juice to loosen up the mixture. Let cool. Purée in a food processor and serve. Will keep in the refrigerator for a week. Makes about 2 cups (500 ml).
Lake Laberge Goat and Rhubarb Stew
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 tsp. (5 ml) cinnamon
1 bunch of cilantro, cleaned and stemmed--
about 2 cups (500 ml)--loosely packed
1 bunch fresh mint--about 2 cups (500 ml)-- loosely packed
2 lbs. (1 kg) goat, wild sheep, or lamb, cut into 2-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. (2 ml) salt
1 tsp. (5 ml) black pepper
2 tbsp. (25 ml) all-purpose flour
2 to 3 cups (500 to 750 ml) goat or chicken stock
4 cups (1 L) fresh or frozen chopped rhubarb
Heat two tablespoons olive oil in a large casserole over medium heat and sauté onions and fennel for 10 to 15 minutes until golden, stirring frequently. While the onions and fennel are cooking, chop the cilantro and the mint and reserve half. Rub the meat with salt, pepper, cinnamon, and minced garlic.
Remove the sautéed onion and fennel to a bowl, add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, and sauté the meat in batches, adding to the vegetables when each batch is done.
Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and sauté half the herbs for a couple of minutes, or until the aroma is released, then add the meat and vegetables to the pan. Sprinkle with flour, mix thoroughly, and cook for two minutes.
Add stock, one cup at a time, and stop when the liquid barely covers the meat. Bring slowly to a simmer, cover, and continue
simmering the stew over low heat for one- and-a-half to two hours or until meat is tender.
Add the rhubarb and cook for a further five minutes. Just before serving, stir in the reserved herbs, saving a couple of table- spoons to sprinkle over each plate.
Serve in a shallow bowl beside a risotto or basmati rice flavoured with the juice and zest of one lemon and 1 tablespoon (15 ml) coriander seeds.
Makes six servings.
Rhubarb Custard Pavlova
Adapted from Jane Baxter, published in The Guardian, in May 2011.
This is a four-stage, four-star recipe for a spring weekend when the rhubarb has asserted itself in the garden and proffered the
first crop of gleaming stalks, and you are ready for a dinner party. You’ll be making a meringue, a custard, and a compote. You can make the compote a day in advance and refrigerate, but the rest is best made the day you plan to serve.
The Rhubarb Compote
3 cups (750 ml) fresh or frozen rhubarb, cut into 1-in. (2-cm) lengths
1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) water or 1/4 cup if rhubarb is frozen
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
1 tbsp. (15 ml) pomegranate or cranberry juice
2 tbsp. (25 ml) frozen lowbush cranberries
1 slice of red beet (This sounds bizarre; it’s for the colour. I used cranberries instead, but in the interest of staying true to the original, here you go.)
4 egg whites at room temperature
2 cups (500 ml) loosely packed soft brown or demerara sugar
1/2 tsp. (2 ml) cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. (2 ml) vanilla
4 egg yolks
1 tbsp. (15 ml) granulated sugar
1 tsp. (5 ml) cornstarch
1 1/3 cups (325 ml) 10 percent cream
1/2 tsp. (2 ml) vanilla extract
The Whipped Cream
1 cup (250 ml) 35 percent cream
First, make the compote. Pre-heat the oven to 350° F (180° C). Place the rhubarb in a shallow, ovenproof dish. Heat the remaining
ingredients to the boiling point in a saucepan over medium-high heat and pour over the rhubarb. Bake for 25-30 minutes, uncovered, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from oven, remove the beet, and cool.
Alternately, combine all the compote ingredients in a wide saucepan and cook over medium-low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated and the rhubarb still holds its shape. Remove the beet. Cool. (Recipe can be made ahead to this stage.)
The day you plan to serve, make the meringue. Whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar until the whites hold stiff peaks, then add the sugar a tablespoon at a time, whisking after each addition until stiff. Add the vanilla at the end.
Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Shape the meringue mix into a large circle about 12 inches in diameter or into 12 individual circles 4 inches in diameter. (You’ll need two baking trays for this option.) Place in a preheated 250° F (120° C) oven for one hour for the smaller meringues and 90 minutes for the larger size until firm to the touch. Turn off the oven and leave the meringue(s) inside for another 30 minutes.
While the meringues are cooking, make the custard. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and cornstarch. Heat the cream and vanilla in a small saucepan. When the cream is about to boil over, remove from heat and pour over the egg-yolk mixture, whisking quickly. Return to the pan and cook over low heat until the custard is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
To assemble the dish, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Top the meringue with the whipped cream, drizzle the custard over the cream, and end with a dollop of rhubarb compote on top. Watch it slide gloriously down the side of the custard and cream, leaving streaks of ruby-red juice. Y