This season I’ve been enjoying classic summer pairings. Certain foods, like people, just seem to belong together, and as the sunshine months wear on, I have been determined to uncover as many of these classic combinations as possible. Just back from Colorado and eager to see what fruit the greenmarket bore in my absence, last Saturday I woke up with a time honored summer pairing in mind: strawberry and rhubarb anything!
Who doesn’t know from strawberries? It’s rhubarb that’s the mystery in this dynamic duo. Strawberries and rhubarb are, in my opinion, perfect foils. Sticky-sweet summer strawberries and crisp, sour rhubarb combine into a brightly syrupy, jewel colored mess that, for me, is a quintessential summer flavor all its own. Like most produce, rhubarb has a long history: its roots were used in traditional Chinese medicine for its powers as, well, a strong laxative…I promise you, though, I had much better plans for my stems! In hot pursuit of this cooling combo, I made my way east to Union Square in search of summer’s ruby couple. At the second stall in the greenmarket I spotted a flash of crimson. Long stalks of end-of-season rhubarb, like red celery, were nestled tightly together in a small spot of shade. I gathered up a generous bunch of stalks without leaves – when sold at markets the toxic leaves are often removed beforehand – and made my way deeper into the square in search of their berry mate.
As I made my way through the crowded, sweaty stalls, flashes of orange surrounded me; before me were nectarines, peaches, apricots and melons galore! I scooped some up for an adventure in canning, but just then my stalks of rhubarb poked into my hip, urging me to stay the course on my very berry quest. I searched the entire market like Sherlock Holmes, but there were no strawberries to be found. Strawberries, like rhubarb, start showing up at markets come spring, but rarely make it through the hottest August weeks. Lucky to nab the last of the fading rhubarb, I had somehow let the season pass me by without simmering together two of my favorite summer staples. Distraught over my tardiness, I was about to return my rhubarb to its original home, when I caught myself. If I really was the FOOD Maven I claimed to be, finding a way to make rhubarb shine sans strawberries was going to be another food challenge I was ready to meet!
Trudging my way up my five flights of stairs, the summer swelter stalling my progress up the steps, I had a heat-induced flash: rhubarb is to summer as cranberries are to fall! No, not in a scientific way, but rhubarb reminds me of cranberries for both its color and use as a tart counterpoint to very sweet fruit. With this thought it mind, I made a beeline for my kitchen and started chopping. I threw sliced rhubarb stalks in a pot with a tiny bit of apple juice and brown sugar. After it had a chance to cook down and thicken, I added some of my sliced peaches. Finished off with some fresh greenmarket basil, I had a perfect chutney to pair with fennel crusted pork chops.
Feeling empowered, and still intoxicated by the way tart rhubarb complimented my smoky pork, I decided it was time to let these stems shine on their own. I chopped up my remaining stalks, tossed them with lemon juice & zest, brown sugar, and a pinch of kosher salt, and roasted them until they were soft and fragrant. I made rhubarb muffins, using my signature blueberry muffin recipe, being sure to substitute the roasted rhubarb stalks for the raw blueberries so they weren’t too stringy in the pastries. Spooned on top of some of the very best yogurt I’ve ever tasted (and brought back home with me from ‘Rado) this sweet-tart topping proved another perfect pairing with Noosa Honey Yogurt and toasted hazelnuts. For the rest of the week I used my roasted rhubarb on everything: stuffed in French toast, as a condiment for turkey sandwiches, and even as a sort of dressing on a caprese salad! I realized that, like radish, every unassuming vegetable sidekick deserves its moment to shine in the spotlight.