Until recently, and by that, I mean as recent as two weeks ago, I've never eaten rhubarb. Not in a pie or a crisp or a compote or even a jam. Not once. I've been wanting to cook with it for the longest time, constantly intrigued by magazines and other blogs praising rhubarb's qualities every spring, but the season for rhubarb always passed by with my attention focused on other things, like strawberries, for instance. Not this year.
I was determined to bake something and first remedied the situation with a strawberry and rhubarb crumble, a common pairing based on internet research (people seem to like it either of two ways: with strawberries or without), which I was very excited about and which turned out to be . . . okay. It wasn't bad. It was just incredibly sweet, too sweet, and the berries overpowered the rhubarb's true taste, which is what I was after in the first place. Having never tried the stuff before but knowing about its tart nature, I thought a test run paired with strawberries would be the best route to take, and it was, in a way, because I found the crumble topping used in the recipe, too rich for the already sweet berries, to be the right kind of foil to a tart filling of rhubarb doused with just a little bit of sugar and lemon peel. A rich buttery topping over a slightly tart mixture of fruit is my kind of crumble. I want to taste the fruit, not be overwhelmed by a mush of rhubarb muddled in a lot of sugar.
So, now that I've tried it both ways, I can say that I like rhubarb best on its own, cooked into something, of course, sans the berries. I should have known, with my taste for tart and acidic foods. Besides, I like my strawberries best fresh, in a bowl, with a fork. No adornment necessary. In season berries don't need any help to taste good.
The final recipe I have for you is based on the strawberry-rhubarb version -- the same crumble topping with oats and sliced almonds, and the same method, but the filling is entirely my own creation, as is the idea of making vanilla bean ice cream to eat alongside. The ice cream is optional, of course, but who doesn't like ice cream with a baked fruit something? Aside from taking a little time to steep the vanilla bean in hot cream and allowing the mixture to cool, the ice cream pulls together easily and only requires five ingredients. As for the crumble, the chunks of rhubarb soften in the oven, turn a pale pink, and the final result may remind you a little of pink lemonade: sweet and sour all at once.
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 2010
¾ cup all-purpose flour
⅔ cup granulated sugar
Large pinch of salt
6 Tbsp (¾ stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-in. cubes
½ cup old-fashioned oats
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tsp lemon zest
2 lbs rhubarb (preferably bright red), ends trimmed, stalks cut
crosswise into ½-in.-thick pieces
Vanilla bean ice cream (recipe follows)
Prepare topping: Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend. Add butter, and blend with a pastry blender until mixture sticks together in clumps. Mix in oats and nuts.
Preheat oven to 375° F. Butter an 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish.
Prepare fruit: Whisk together sugar, flour, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add rhubarb, and toss to coat well. Scrape fruit filling into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle oat topping evenly over filling.
Bake crumble until filling bubbles thickly and topping is crisp, about 45 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Spoon warm crumble into bowls. Serve with ice cream.
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Adapted from the Cuisinart manual's Recipe Booklet
½ vanilla bean
3 cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup mild-flavored honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
Place cream in a saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into cream and add the pod halves. Bring cream just to a simmer over medium-high heat, then turn off heat, cover pan, and let steep for 15 minutes. Discard pod halves.
Meanwhile, place milk, honey, and vanilla extract in a large bowl and stir until honey is dissolved. When cream is ready, pour into milk mixture. Stir well, then refrigerate until chilled.
Process according to your ice cream manufacturer's directions (it takes about 25 - 30 minutes in ours). Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and freeze for a few hours for a firmer, scoopable texture.
Makes about 2 quarts.