WHEN LIFE DEALS YOU LEMONS—well, maybe not lemons, but battered, shredded rhubarb, thanks to hail—make rhubarb compote, crumble and syrup, perhaps with an eye to using less sugar than usually called for in the process. That was the attitude here one recent spring, and we did. My 2013 rhubarb story: before, after, and deliciously ready-to-eat.
Usually at rhubarb time of year I forbid that even a single stalk be picked, because I cultivate lowly, old-fashioned garden rhubarb as a focal point in the garden (above), a favorite of Open Day tour visitors who often think it’s something rare and exotic since it’s in a prominent spot and a showoff. I’m a lover of big-leaved plants (not the best combination with hail).
But in 2013 my bold, beautiful and blooming rhubarb was savaged. Not just the leaves, but the stalks, too, were shredded to my surprise (above)—so my trusty helper Susan and I harvested what we could from the mess, and did a rhubarb experiment. (It’s way too early at rhubarb time locally for there to be strawberries, so they didn’t figure into our cookoff.)
- to figure out what sweetener was tastiest—yet not too sweet. Typically recipes call for 1 or 1½ cups of white sugar for 6ish or 7 cups of cut-up raw rhubarb, equal to about 2 pounds of fruit, but that seems like too much;
- to taste-test different spices in the mix (cardamon, cinnamon or ginger are often suggested, as is orange zest);
- to make use of any excess liquid that results from cooking the rhubarb, but in some batches makes for a too-swampy compote.
With three batches of 6 cups of one-inch rhubarb pieces, we tried these additions, all of which were sweet enough for our taste:
- ½ cup brown sugar and ½ cup fresh orange juice, plus the zest of an orange;
- ½ cup honey and ¼ cup water;
- ½ cup honey and ¼ cup fresh orange juice.
Result: We liked the brown sugar-OJ blend best—and especially when it had ¼ teaspoon cinnamon added.
hailstone rhubarb compote
TART AND TASTY contrast as a sauce over Greek-style yogurt, granola, or ice cream—or as the filling to shortcake. I like it on its own, too, and froze individual portions in jelly jars for later use.
- 6 cups washed, cut-up rhubarb, preferably not all thick green stalks (which can be stringy)
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
- zest of one orange
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- In a non-reactive, heavy pot, combine the fruit, sugar and juice. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for perhaps 5 minutes, still covered.
- Add the zest and cinnamon; continue to simmer, uncovered, for 3-5 more minutes to thicken.
- The mixture will further thicken as it cools—or don’t wait, and strain it off, yielding a delightful pink syrup that makes a great addition to seltzer with a generous slice of fresh orange, or even makes a rhubarb Bellini, in Prosecco, if it’s cocktail hour.
YOU NEEDN’T precook the rhubarb, as we did in our compote experiments above, to make a crumble. Instead, simply toss the cut-up rhubarb with flour and sugar in a mixing bowl, then heap it in a baking dish that’s perhaps dotted with butter, top it with a streusel or oat topping, and bake. Perhaps like this.
But we found that it took a lot more sugar to make the rhubarb go all gooey and soft baked in an open pan like that, than it did to make the compote and use that as part of our crumble’s base layer. So…
- Ingredients: One recipe for hailstone rhubarb compote (above), but cook only the first 5 minutes.
- Drain off the liquid (this is your bonus rhubarb syrup for drinks) then return 3 Tbsp. to the mix to be baked.
- Add ¾ cups cut-up raw rhubarb to the partly cooked rhubarb compote.
- Spoon the cooked-and-raw fruit mix into a glass baking pan, such as a pie plate or 9-inch square Pyrex type, or into individual ramekins (note: the fruit mixture will cook down, so fill generously).
- Sprinkle on the topping mix (recipe below).
- Bake in a 375 degree F oven until the fruit is bubbly and the topping brown, about 50 minutes.
for the topping:
- 1 stick of butter, cold and cut into small pieces
- 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. flour (we used ½ cup spelt flour and
- ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour)
- 1/4 cup rolled oats
- ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
Using a pastry blender, combine the butter with the flour and sugar. Mix in the oats and spice. Sprinkle onto the fruit mix.
The crumble freezes well, too, in individual portions.