A pile of freshly cut rhubarb stalks appeared at our back door last week, courtesy of our neighbor Ralph. This is one of the strange and wonderful things about living on the Vineyard: People are in the habit of sharing…without much fuss or fanfare. Stuff just shows up, unbidden but much appreciated. In the short time we’ve been living in the farmhouse, we’ve been the grateful recipients of beach plum jelly, wild cherry jam, honey, eggs, lobsters, codfish, sweet potatoes, pickles, warm bread and kale soup, to name a few things.
I was particularly excited to see those beautiful rhubarb stalks, since I won’t be harvesting any this year from the new plant I plopped in the ground a few weeks ago at the southeast corner of the garden. As soon as I got the plant, it immediately sent up its monstrous flower stalk. The flower is fascinating (see photo), but after admiring it for a while, I lopped it off, hoping to return the plant’s energy to its stalks. Still, it’s a baby plant and I won’t be cooking from it this year.
I knew right away what I wanted to make with the rhubarb gift—a favorite Fine Cooking recipe from years ago. It’s a fabulously tender muffin from award-winning North Carolina baker Karen Barker. The tart little rhubarb bits melt into these light coffee-cake-like treats, which are topped with cinnamon sugar. The batter has sour cream, melted butter, cinnamon, and vanilla in it, and it comes together really easily. Twenty minutes in the oven and nirvana. Roy was home from work cutting and pounding out a piece of copper in his shop when the muffins came out of the oven. So I stopped snapping photos long enough to get a few warm muffins out to him. He likes anything with cinnamon sugar on it, but especially if it’s straight out of the oven.
I had enough rhubarb left over to mess around again with a strawberry-rhubarb compote I’ve been tinkering with. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts lately about roasted strawberries (something we also did at Fine Cooking years ago!) and was hoping I could make an oven–roasted compote with both rhubarb and strawberries that would be a bit roasty-flavored and perhaps would keep the rhubarb together better than a stovetop version. I won’t bore you with my experiments (which included some ghastly rhubarb “chips!”) but I will give you the parameters (below) for the compote as it stands now, because it’s an incredibly easy, versatile, seasonal condiment. I use it most often in my favorite treat—yogurt and granola parfaits—but I also put it in smoothies (with frozen bananas) and on pancakes. And of course it would be great on vanilla ice cream.
I’ve resigned myself to a syrupy, soft-fruit dessert-topping-ish kind of compote, and this texture is just a-okay with me. What I’m not quite happy with yet is the sweet-tart flavor balance. My first version wasn’t quite sweet enough and the second version was too sweet. But just futzing with the sweetness won’t necessarily fix this, because rhubarb has a unique tartness that doesn’t really get mitigated by more sweet. Sweet flavors can hang out with rhubarb, but not knock it back altogether. Too much sweet and you just get cloying. Right now I also have a bit of balsamic vinegar (great with strawberries) and orange juice in this, and I’m thinking to knock those back even more and switch out more of the plain sugar for more maple syrup. (I’m wondering about adding vanilla, too?) But since I probably won’t get to the next version any time soon, I’m leaving the tweaks up to you. (I don’t usually offer experiments on the blog—I like to give you finished recipes, but something like this really does involve a measure of personal taste!) In the directions following, I’m suggesting a middle road on the maple and sugar and a little less balsamic then my last batch.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote: Heat the oven to 425 degrees and butter a 3-quart baking dish. Slice 8 ounces of rhubarb into 1/2-inch pieces (a scant 2 cups), and quarter or halve about 10 ounces of (organic or local) strawberries (2 cups). Put them in a mixing bowl with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, 3 tablespoons maple syrup, 2 tablespoons orange juice, and 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with a little salt, toss well, and scrape and pour out into the baking dish. Spread in one layer. Bake for 20 minutes, stir gently with a silicone spoon, and continue baking until the liquids are syrupy (but not too reduced or they will burn), about another 6 to 10 minutes. Let cool in the pan, transfer to a glass or ceramic container and keep in the fridge for a week or so. This makes about 1 cup compote.
P.S. I seem to have a thing for saucy rhubarb recipes–see my chutney recipe I posted last spring. (This year I gave in to the classic strawberry pairing!)