These days, when I get to the Batignolles farmers market on Saturday mornings — as early as I can but not as early as I’d like — my first order of business is to dart upon whatever rhubarb is left at my favorite produce stall.
My strategy is not 100% proper, I’m afraid.
The pile of stalks is usually found a third of the way down the length of the stall, wedged in between, say, a basket of short cucumbers and a crate of tiny new potatoes, and by the time I get to the greenmarket (see above), there’s barely enough left for my needs.
So rather than wait until the line moves up enough that the rhubarb is within my reach, or worse yet, until it’s my turn to get one of the attendants’ attention, I squeeze in between two customers in the line, all smiles and apologies and “I’m just here for the rhubarb” assurances, and gather the stalks I want, picking the ones that are firm and blemish-free. Only then do I get in line, an armful of stalks bunched up in one of my trusty produce bags, reclining contentedly in the knowledge that we’ll be eating poached rhubarb all week long.
I have a particular soft spot for rhubarb, and there are very many things I like to do with it — including this rhubarb tart with lemon verbena and this butterless crumble — but for my everyday consumption, rhubarb compote is what I crave.
For years and years I’ve cooked it softly with a bit of sugar until the rhubarb chunks collapse into feathery strands, but this year I’ve adopted an entirely new approach I like even better: I now poach my rhubarb.
The idea is to prepare a syrup (just a fancy word for water that has sugar in it) infused with some fresh vanilla, bring it to a simmer, add small amounts of rhubarb to it, and cook it every so briefly — just one minute after the syrup returns to a simmer — so that the chunks are cooked through, but still retaining their shape.
You repeat this process using the same syrup with however much rhubarb you have to cook, and you get this lovely compote that requires a little more human intervention, but is considerably more presentable than its baby-food counterpart.
I like to eat a small bowl of it for breakfast or as a snack, with optional granola mixed in, and it is a well received, homey dessert, too, with sablés on the side and perhaps a little crème fraîche.
The bonus of this method is that you’ll likely have rhubarb syrup leftover once you’ve eaten all the rhubarb chunks, and you’ll get to use the soft pink liquid to sweeten plain yogurt, to cook rice or tapioca pudding, to imbibe your babas, or to make la-di-da cocktails with sparkling white wine.
What about you, what are your favorite ways to cook and eat rhubarb?
- 1 kilo (2.5 pounds) fresh rhubarb stalks
- 125 grams (2/3 cup) unrefined cane sugar
- a 10-cm (4-inch) segment of a plump vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
- Trim both ends of the rhubarb stalks. Cut the stalks in 1-cm (1/3-inch) slices, unless they are pencil-thin, in which case you should cut them in 2.5-cm (1-inch) segments.
- Put the sugar and 500 ml (1/2 quart) fresh water in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the inside of the bean with the dull side of the blade, and add them and the bean to the pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring regularly as the sugar dissolves.
- Add a quarter of the rhubarb to the simmering syrup -- resist the temptation to add more, the rhubarb won't cook evenly if the pan is crowded -- cover, and allow the mixture to return to simmering point. Once the syrup simmers, cook for just 1 minute, until the rhubarb pieces are soft (test with the tip of the knife, it should meet minimal resistance) but still holding their shape.
- Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon, leaving the syrup in the pan, and transfer to a serving dish or container.
- Repeat with the rest of the rhubarb, one small batch at a time. Add the syrup and the vanilla bean to the dish.
- Serve slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold, on its own -- you can offer extra sugar at the table for people who like their rhubarb sweeter -- or with a little cream and some sablés.
Poached rhubarb freezes well in its syrup.