How to make the most of rhubarb

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, June 12, 2012 7:20pm
  • Life

On very few occasions would my kitchen qualify for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Tidiness.

But on this particular afternoon, things were especially bad. Anyone who has spent a day putting up a supply of jams or jellies has already zeroed in on the image and would understand when I say that after five hours of paring, pitting, slicing, stirring, sweating and lugging massive amounts of food and canning supplies around my kitchen, I’m ready for a nap.

So when my husband entered onto the scene, and gazed admiringly upon the row of gleaming jars, I found little comfort in his words: “I think we could really say our life was in order if we were preserving all of the food this family needed.”

I edited my response down to two words: “Get real.”

But the truth is that plenty of families are doing just that. Really.

And I admire them tremendously.

They move through the preserving season, from fruit to vegetable, U-pick field to roadside stand, ferreting out the freshest, most bountiful offerings of summer. One neighbor on our block was displaying over two dozen cartons of surplus canning jars at a garage sale.

They were all pints and half pints, she explained, as I combed hungrily through the precious cache. Her family was using only quarts now.

How many did she normally use, I asked.

She pointed to the upper shelves in the garage where another two dozen cartons of quart-size jars lined the walls. After calculating the number of kitchen hours those jars represented, I just wanted to go lie down.

So, in honor of these energetic souls about to take up permanent residence in their kitchens as they frantically capture summer’s essence for those leaner months, I’m dedicating this week’s column.

Not that they’ll notice. They’re all out picking rhubarb.

Freezing rhubarb

This spring-into-summer crop is one of the easiest fruits to prepare; no peeling, pitting, coring or stemming involved. Freezing is the simplest method for preserving, since rhubarb — like blueberries, cranberries, currants, figs and gooseberries — can be prepared without sugar, syrup or juice.

Wash firm, young, well-colored stalks. Dry each stalk well. Trim and cut into desired size pieces to fit your packaging material, then proceed as follows.

Dry pack method (no sugar): Pack the raw, dry pieces tightly into freezer bags or cartons, leaving a half-inch headroom to allow for expansion during freezing; seal and freeze.

Wet pack method (syrup): Pack the raw, dry pieces into freezer bags or cartons, then cover with a cold syrup (see below), leaving a half-inch of headroom to allow for expansion during freezing; seal and freeze.

Syrup: Dissolve 3 cups of sugar thoroughly in 4 cups of hot or cold water. If hot, chill the mixture well before packing. Syrup can be made the day before and refrigerated. Yields 5 1/2 cups.

Figure on 1/2 to 2/3 cup of syrup for each pint container of fruit.

Frozen rhubarb puree

1pound fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3/4cup granulated sugar

1/4cup water

In a stainless steel or enameled saucepan, combine the rhubarb, sugar and water. Let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes to begin drawing out the rhubarb juices. Bring the mixture to a boil over moderate heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a thick puree, about 30 minutes. Let the puree cool to room temperature and then pack into freezer storage bags or cartons and freeze. To use the puree, simply thaw. Yields about 2 cups of puree.

Note: Instead of freezing, rhubarb puree may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Use the puree to fill tart shells or as a delicious ice cream topping.

The following is one of the best rhubarb chutneys I’ve ever come across.

Gingery rhubarb chutney

7cups red-skinned rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 pounds of trimmed rhubarb)

1 1/2cups coarsely chopped onions

1 1/2cups golden raisins

1 1/2cups sugar

1cup water

4cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger

1tablespoon pickling or other fine non-iodized salt

2teaspoons mustard seed

1teaspoon ground allspice

1teaspoon ground coriander

1/2teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)

1/4teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4teaspoon ground cloves

2cups cider vinegar

1/4cup light corn syrup

Wash 7 half-pint jars (or 3 pint jars and 1 half-pint). Keep hot until needed. Prepare lids as manufacturer directs.

Combine all of the ingredients except the vinegar and corn syrup in a large pot; mix well. Bring to a boil over medium heat, lower the temperature, and simmer the mixture, stirring it occasionally, until the onion pieces are translucent, about 30 minutes.

Add the vinegar and corn syrup and cook uncovered over medium-high heat (the mixture will appear to be very soupy at first, don’t worry) until the chutney is thick and the consistency of catsup (with lumps!) about 45 minutes. You will need to stir almost constantly the last 20 minutes or so to keep the chutney from scorching.

Ladle the hot chutney into one hot jar at a time, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth. Attach lid. Fill and close remaining jars. Process pints and half-pints in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. (Altitude adjustment: For elevations between 1,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, process for 15 minutes; 6,001 to 9,000 feet, process for 20 minutes.)

Store the jars for 3 weeks before opening. Yields 6 to 7 half-pints.

Adapted from “Fancy Pantry,” by Helen Witty.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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