Like ramps, rhubarb is another of the spring ingredients to poke its head out of the soil early. This hearty perennial is a vegetable, although it is generally used as a fruit in desserts, and provides a tart, jellied consistency for jams, chutneys, compotes, and marmalades. Rhubarb pairs perfectly with strawberries, since they share the spring season at the same time, although it combines with other fruits as well with tasty results.
Rhubarb is ready to use as soon as it is harvested: grows in the same spot each season, thrives in colder climates, and needs a hard freeze to regenerate.
You only eat the stalks, which have a rich tart flavor and crispness similar to celery. The leaves are poisonous to humans so be sure to remove them if you source stalks with the leaves untrimmed. Rhubarb is easy to grow, but needs cooler weather to thrive. If you include it in your garden, a half-dozen plants will provide more than enough rhubarb for a family.
Rhubarb in the garden
Photo credit: CLG20171/Flickr
Rhubarb freezes well. Chop into 1-inch pieces, spread them on a sheet pan and place in the freezer. Once frozen, place the rhubarb into heavy-duty plastic freezer bags. Stored this way, rhubarb will keep for up to six months.
There are so many ways to prepare rhubarb I thought it might be fun to explore one savory recipe and one sweet recipe. For the savory I am going to share a recipe for rhubarb mostarda and for the sweet recipe, a rhubarb and strawberry crostata.
Mostarda di frutta or simply mostarda, is a popular condiment served predominanly in northern Italy, from Piemonte to Lombardy, where the Mostarda di Cremona is the most well-know variation, then onto the Veneto region and into Emilia Romagna.
It is essentially an Italian fruit preserve, similar to chutney or a relish, cooked down within a mustard-flavored syrup. The mustard component is interesting because in Italy most recipes include a few drops of mustard essence more simply defined as liquid mustard gas that I am told is banned in the United States by the FDA. The workaround is to use a combination of Dijon mustard or dry mustard powder diluted into a paste with a little white wine, or if you can source a bottle of mustard oil.
Traditionally, mostarda is served with bollito misto (boiled meats), a specialty of the cuisine of northern Italy. In more contemporary cuisine, mostarda pairs well with most braised or roasted dishes, especially pork or poultry, as well as mixed charcuterie or cheese plates. Many tree fruits or berries are used to prepare a mostarda, either singularly or in combination. I have read and researched many approaches to making a mostarda, from a five day process that I believe is just too long for the home cook and more suited to the restaurant kitchen where perhaps larger quantities are prepared. However, there are much quicker variations and with this recipe I have chosen to take that approach to prepare a rhubarb mostarda.
For the most part this recipe could be the template for any mostarda, keeping the ratio of water to sugar the same and simply changing the main fruit or vegetable to create different variations. A finished mostarda can keep for up to three weeks in the refrigerator and for six months in the freezer.
1½ pounds fresh rhubarb stalks, leaves removed, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces (approximately 5 to 6 cups)
1 medium sweet white onion or a red onion, diced
2 cups sugar
2 cups water (or 1 cup water plus 1 cup dry white wine)
3 tablespoons dry mustard powder (Colemans or other)
3 tablespoons yellow or brown mustard seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon mustard oil, or to taste (if mustard oil is unavailable, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard can be substituted)
Mostarda mise en place
Lightly toast the mustard seeds over moderate heat until they begin to pop. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Mix the dry mustard with 1 or 2 tablespoons of white wine until a thick paste forms. Mix in the mustard oil if using or Dijon, set aside.
Add the sugar and the water to a stockpot large enough to hold the fruit. Place over medium heat and stir constantly until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat slightly.
Mix in the prepared fruit, in this case the rhubarb, along with the mustard seeds and the prepared mustard paste. Stir until thoroughly combined.
Simmer for 20 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fruit reaches a jam-like consistency. Check and adjust the seasoning by adding more mustard oil or Dijon if you prefer a little more assertive flavor. Allow to cool and then serve at room temperature.
Trio of sheep milk cheeses accompanied by rhubarb mostarda
If you are a pie lover then you will appreciate the straightforward rustic variation that is a crostata. These free-form open pastries can be made in most any size, from 12-inch rounds to mini bite-size variations.
These confections are quick, easy and delicious, and no two are exactly alike since in most cases they are hand folded instead of formed within a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Those crostata are more uniform in shape and often times have a lattice-strip topping.
The fillings are numerous and vary by what is in season. In Italy jams are very common; most fresh fruits make fine fillings alone or in combination, as does ricotta flavored with nuts, dried fruit, and citron, as well as various custards with perhaps a pinch of spice. And, just to keep things interesting, a crostata doesn’t just have to be a sweet pastry, which I learned when I prepared a savory variation using a mix wild mushrooms and fresh herbs.
The crust surrounding a crostata is as important as the filling, and there are probably as many recipes for the crust as there are home bakers. Mine is a work in progress as I tinker with the proportions of flour to sugar to butter, but in the end the crust should be tender, flaky, and rich. The recipe I am sharing here is the one I use when making any crostata where the overall size and final shape is determined by the amount and type of filling to be wrapped by the baked crust.
In the end, a crostata presents a lovely seasonal dessert as well as a perfect breakfast dish.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons sweet butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and chilled
3 tablespoons whole milk Greek yogurt
Filling for rhubarb and strawberry crostata:
1-1/4 pounds fresh rhubarb stalks, leaves removed, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces (approximately 5 cups)
8 large strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract, (or Campari, grappa, or kirsch)
2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar to finish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
In the workbowl of a food processor add all the pastry ingredients, the butter a few pieces at a time, and pulse only until the dough comes together. Turn out on a lightly floured board, shape into a flat disk, wrap with clear film and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Place all the filling ingredients except the confectioner sugar in a large mixing bowl and fold together until the fruit is well coated. Set aside.
Once the dough is ready, unwrap it onto a floured surface then with a floured roller roll it out to an approximate 14-inch round. Use a pastry scraper to gently fold the dough into quarters and place on a flat, round baking sheet pan, then gently unfold to fit the pan.
Mix together a tablespoon each of granulated sugar and all-purpose flour and spread around the center of the dough leaving approximately a 2-inch ring from the outside edge.
Place the filling mix within the center area dusted with the sugar-flour mix and begin to fold the remaining dough edge around the filling piled in the middle. The dough will not cover the filling completely but instead form an overlapping edge to contain the filling within the crust once baked. Use slightly moistened fingers, to lightly press the folded creases together so that they hold their shape during baking.If you like, you can dot the exposed fruit filling with one teaspoon of butter cut into small pieces.
Bake the crostata for 40 minutes in the preheated oven until the crust is golden brown and the filling is tender and syruplike. Depending on the heat of your oven, if you think the crostata is getting too brown too quickly, it can be covered with foil.
When finished allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes on a rack, then if using, dust the crostata with the confectioners’ sugar. Once cool, carefully life the crostata to a platter or cake stand to serve.
Rhubarb strawberry crostata
A crostata can be made all year round using whatever fruits are available and the freshest. This is just one example making good use of early spring produce and their great flavor complement. Quite frankly, I thought this crostata was better for breakfast than dessert after a meal. You be the judge.
Meanwhile, we will add rhubarb to our square-foot garden and with any luck plan on it emerging after next winter has past.
Enjoy exploring rhubarb this spring.
Eat well. Be well.
“From Nature to Plate” T/K