Summer in Minnesota is a beautiful thing. It may be just a few fleeting months, but the seasonal produce is plentiful, interesting, and inspires some of the most memorable dishes we eat all year. Right now we're nearing the end of rhubarb season, and for those of us with home gardens and CSA boxes that means we have more of these sour pink stalks than we know what to do with.
The Hot Dish caught up with Kim Ode, feature writer for the Star Tribune Variety section and author of the recently released cookbook Rhubarb Renaissance, to pick her brain about changing the reputation of rhubarb as a "dessert only" ingredient, her favorite recipes for this versatile veggie, and what the recipe-testing process is like when you're putting together a cookbook.
Here are her answers to our most pressing rhubarb-related questions:
Your first cookbook, Baking with the St. Paul Bread Club, was all about bread. A collection of rhubarb recipes doesn't seem like too much of a leap since most people think cakes and pies when they think about rhubarb. But your book has several savory recipes too. What inspired you to write this book and what do you hope people take away from it?
I grew up with rhubarb as something in pies, cobblers, and crisps, so the challenge from the Minnesota Historical Society Press to move it into other courses of the meal was intriguing. As soon as I got my brain around the fact that rhubarb, botanically, is a vegetable, then things began to fall into place. I started experimenting with pairing it with different herbs and seasonings, with the oniony-bacony side of things, and cheeses. There were a few misses, but rhubarb's tart note was actually so complementary to lots of foods. Shrimp and rhubarb make a heaven-sent combo.
What's the general level of difficulty for most of your recipes?
I think they're pretty accessible -- no lengthy lists of ingredients, and the techniques are pretty much chop and stir. The fussiest may be a great lunch strudel filled with smoked mozzarella, ricotta cheese, and a rhubarb mostarda, which really is just a savory condiment with some mustard seeds. I used purchased phyllo, but just follow the directions on the package.
The rhubarb in the farmers markets is great, and the recent rains will have prolonged the crop this year. But I'm also starting to chop it for the freezer, which truly involves nothing more than cutting it in half-inch pieces, like you'd use in a pie, then plopping it all in a freezer bag. You can make it more complicated, but that's all you really have to do, so you can break out a bag in the middle of winter and taste spring.
How many times did you typically have to tweak and test a recipe before you felt like it was ready for inclusion in this book? Any recipe that just didn't go over well, despite your best efforts?
Hmm, hard to say. Some came together almost at once. Others took a few shots. Mostly, I kept trying to scale back the sweetening. So many old recipes that I looked to for inspiration asked for so much sugar! I wanted to let the rhubarb be rhubarb, but then that called for making other adjustments. Failures? Well, I tried to grill rhubarb, thinking it could be amazing, but it just got mushy before it even took on any grill marks. And I have to admit that couldn't make my tastebuds even think of combining chocolate and rhubarb, although I've since been assured that rhubarb truffles are wonderful.
The whole publishing landscape is really changing. Did you have a difficult path to getting this published or did your previous experience help make the whole experience easier?
I was extraordinarily fortunate in having a relationship with the MHS Press because of the bread book. We'd been talking on and off over the years about a new project, so this one came together without much drama.
Excited to see what else you can do with rhubarb? Kim shared the following recipe for a salad that uses both kale and rhubarb. She says:
I love this salad. It's gorgeous, but it also makes you feel like a superhero with all of its vitamins. Lacinato kale--a dark green variety often called dinosaur kale--provides the best color contrast for the ruby bits of rhubarb and golden batons of cheese. The liquid from the pickled rhubarb helps make the vinaigrette. Prepare the rhubarb at least three hours before serving. Serves 6.
Confetti Salad of Kale and Rhubarb
1 cup rhubarb, cut in quarter-inch pieces
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup white balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
Place rhubarb in a shallow heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil; cook until sugar dissolves. Pour mixture over the rhubarb and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours before using. The pickles' flavor even improves if refrigerated overnight. Any leftover pickling liquid can be refrigerated for future use.
Remove center rib from kale leaves, stack several pieces, then slice crosswise into a fine julienne. You should end up with about 5 cups. Rinse kale and pat dry between paper towels or use a salad spinner.
Whisk together pickling liquid and walnut oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss dressing with the kale, then gently fold in the cheese and drained rhubarb. Place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes so the kale softens a bit; it can chill for up to 3 hours.