24 May 2008

Rhubarb! Rhubarb! (with pictures)

I haven't "officially" joined ExLibris' Soup's On! Challenge but after reading Emily's recent post on her experiments with Indian cooking -- and a trip to the Farmers' Market this morning -- I thought I'd play along in spirit with this post.

Farmers' Markets recently have become a big thing in my town. There are now two markets on Saturday either close to my home, or on my usual Saturday errand route. This morning, when I went for an early morning walk with friends, we walked to one of these markets. Today's market was crowded at the opening bell with joggers, bikers, dog walkers (and their dogs), young and old alike strolling past the 20 or so stalls selling a variety of local, fresh goods. At this time of the year, there are plenty of herbs, flowers, and garden plants for sale, but there isn't a lot of fresh produce at the markets. Asparagus is in season and it looked yummy. In addition to my usual purchase of shitake mushrooms, I bought some lettuce and a bottle of deliciously creamy yogurt from a local dairy whose products are organic & their cows are grass-feed. And, in an impulsive move, I bought some rhubarb.

I don't buy rhubarb often. I think I heard the Prairie Home Companion folks singing Rhubarb. Rhubarb. Rhubarb pie! I wasn't even sure how to prepare it, so I went to my cookbook bookshelf and pulled out a favorite book, Nigella Lawson's How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food.

I didn't realize that rhubarb is one of Nigella's favorites. Had I been so inclined, I could have made a rhubarb fool, rhubarb custard, rhubarb ice-cream, a jellied dish, a trifle, a tart, or an almost irresistible steamed pudding called, memorably, Pig's Bum. Instead, I decided to make a Rhubarb Crumble.

About 10 years ago, I started buying cookbooks whenever I traveled. This version of How to Eat, which is also available in an Americanized version, is one I picked up on a trip to London a few years ago. The challenge for me with this book: because it is British, the measurements are in metric. Being the ignorant American that I am, I can't easily translate the measurements. Since most European cooking measures dry ingredients by weight instead of volume -- which really is the logical way to do it -- this book presents another challenge. Try converting 120g to cups. There isn't a formula for that. But, I have a new kitchen scale so I didn't even bother. All metric for me on this one, baby. Well almost!

So, here's the recipe:
Cut up the rhubarb and the strawberries. The recipe called for 1 kg of rhubarb and I had only bought about 1 pound. I obviously didn't proceed far before altering the recipe, but rhubarb & strawberries go together for more reasons than color palette, so the berries made up the other pound or so. Add a couple of tablespoons each of caster sugar and light muscovado sugar. Oops -- second stumble: What is caster? What is muscovado? And to think that I used to wonder why anyone would want a computer in their kitchen. How insinuated Google and Wikipedia have become in our lives!

Caster is a fine white baking sugar and muscovado is an unrefined brown sugar with a strong taste of molasses. No Muscovado to be found at the supermarket, so relied on turbinated sugar instead (aka Sugar in the Raw) and the plain white processed all-purpose sugar in the cabinet would have to do in place of the caster sugar.

Add the sugar, orange zest and some orange juice (a "spritz", Nigella advised). Since I was going to use them in my dinner recipe, I used blood oranges, another Nigella favorite. Since I already had a reddish theme with the rhubarb and the strawberries, I thought the red juice of the oranges fit right in. The recipe calls for oranges, not blood oranges, but the strawberries were very sweet and I thought the tarter taste of the juice would work better. If you aren't familiar with blood or Seville oranges, Nigella writes that they can be substituted whenever you'd use lemon but want some more color. The color of them fascinates me. I find them a little sweeter than lemons, but they are definitely much more sour than your typical California navel or Florida orange.

The crumble crust was simple to make: 120g of self-raising floor, a pinch of salt, 90g of butter, cold and cubed into small pieces about 1 cm, 3 tablespoons of muscovado sugar and 3 tablespoons of sugar or vanilla sugar. I didn't have any vanilla sugar made either although I did have the beans. Note to self: make some for next time I need it. To spice the crumble crust, I added orange peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. Cardamom is my absolute favorite spice.

120g of flour was a little less than 2 cups, 90g of butter was one stick with a smallish slice removed. One standard US stick of butter is 113g. To mix the crust, add flour and salt and butter and mix with your hands. In Nigella's words: using the tips of your fingers -- index and middle flutteringly stroking the fleshy pads of your thumbs -- rub it into the flour. Stop when you have a mixture that resembles porridge oats. I don't know how flutteringly I mixed it, but I did stop when it looked like oatmeal.

Keep in the fridge until ready to bake or in the freezer for 10 minutes. Because the fridge was full, it went into the freezer while I made dinner.

This cooking post is suffering from a bit of ADHD. Back to the rhubarb in a minute. Here is dinner:

Yummy fresh salmon

placed in foil packs, with 1/8 c lemon juice, 1/8 c sweet Marsala wine, sliced blood oranges or lemons, & capers. Spray the foil with spray oil.

Each fillet goes in its own foil pack. Fold up the foil packs tightly. Place on baking sheet. Cook at 425 for 20-25 minutes.

Prep asparagus. Of course, readers who are asparagus lovers know to break off the stalks near the end, where they naturally break. Spray the tray. Drizzle with good olive oil. Salt. Pepper. And -- the secret ingredient I tried today on advice from my friend S (the best non-professional cook I know) -- sprinkle with nutmeg. This adds a woodsy but sweet taste to the vegetable. Put in same oven for last 8 minutes the salmon is cooking. During those 8 minutes, drink a glass of wine (see first photo) and try to figure out what the hell Gas Point 5 is on your oven.

Back to the rhubarb-strawberry crumble: Gas point 5 is 190 - 200C. It took two math whizzes and me debating for a few minutes on how to convert to determine the setting. We finally settled on 375 - after the crumble had been in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 (my original calculation). But said oven had been at 425, so I figured it would all even out.

Which it sort of did. I baked for 30 minutes instead of the recommended 20-25. It probably could have cooked for yet another 5, as the rhubarb was crunchier than I liked. The crumble ended up being juicier than I liked. I think coating the fruit with a dusting of flour or cornstarch would have been better. I liked the crust a lot. Overall it wasn't bad. I'd give this recipe a grade of B- because of the liquidity. I'll try this again sometime with berries or apples or maybe peaches. Doesn't peaches with cardamom-spiced crumble crust sound heavenly?

Although this recipe didn't turn out picture perfect, I still like this cookbook and would recommend it to cookbook readers and cooks alike. Although the British terms can be new for the American cook, this book, and Lawson's overall approach to cooking -- simple, not much fuss, delicious and pleasurable food -- is so accessible. I think that the American version of this book, in addition to the measures, has been edited to include more familiar terms. The recipes are written in a narrative style, rather than an instructional, step-by-step style. While this isn't the easiest to follow during preparation, each recipe is interspersed with comments by Lawson on the taste, texture or appearance of the work in progress, or maybe with just an aside regarding something about the food. As I was looking for a rhubarb recipe today, I was sidetracked into reading her thoughts on food in season and which food she likes to buy fresh during certain months. Lawson is always entertaining, and frequently tosses in a comment that is sure to make you laugh. Like today, reading her admonition not to mold a rhubarb gelatin in a certain style of mold because, due to its dusty pink color, might come out looking "a bit gynecological". Ahem! This is not your typical everyday run-of-the-mill cookbook, but it is a cookbook you could use any day.


Charlotte said...

I love Nigella! And How To Eat taught me How To Cook.

Your crumble looks lovely. I really must be brave and try cooking rhubarb.

Emily Barton said...

Oh my, my mouth is watering! Thanks for the great post and all the pictures.