Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Love with the Perfect Stranger

What’s cooking? Rhubarb Compote

Among the strange-looking products that pop up here and there in a farmers’ market, rhubarb is more likely than most to cause people scratch their heads and say, “But what do you do with it?” Which is an interesting thing to say about a plant that’s been in use for some 3000 years.

As with many off-beat foods, rhubarb was first used in China, as a medicinal plant. The roots were considered effective as a laxative. (Keep in mind that we’re going to cook with the stems.) In the 14th century, it was imported to Europe via the Silk Road and the ports of Aleppo and Smyrna. But in European soil, they had no luck getting roots with the medicinal effect, and as sugar became more available, rhubarb migrated into culinary uses. The earliest record of it in the Americas comes from botanist John Bartram, who grew both medicinal and culinary rhubarbs in Philadelphia in the 1730s.

I first came across rhubarb in my early married days, when a friend in Massachusetts cut some out of her backyard garden to go in a pie with her homegrown raspberries. Smitten as I was with the pie, it was many years before I found the rhubarb again – in my New Jersey farmers’ market. It starts showing up in early spring and is intermittently available throughout the summer.

Then on a reunion of college friends in California early last month, I was in charge of dinner. But of course. I needed something easy for dessert, and I’d settled on Eton Mess, that strawberry/meringue/ fruit sauce/whipped cream concoction I wrote about a year ago. The only challenge was finding a fruit – preferably red – with which to make the sauce. And there on a table at a farmstand near San Luis Obispo, I saw... rhubarb, which I knew would be just the thing. Rhubarb sauce could not be simpler to make: a little water, some sugar, and lemon juice will turn the stems into a yummy compote in less than 15 minutes. But the most fun was when, at dinner that night, one of the women said, “Wow – where did you find rhubarb sauce?” I smiled and tried to look angelic as I said, “I didn’t buy it. I made it.This afternoon.” The Kitchen Goddess strikes again.

So on my first trip back to the New Jersey market this summer, I was heading to the car with my bounty when I saw... a bunch of rhubarb. I already had more fruits and veggies than I knew what to cook with, but the rhubarb looked lonely there at the side of a table. I snapped it up.

I had no particular plan, but knew I had to make that sauce again. This time, with my full larder available, I tweaked it a bit, adding ginger liqueur, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt to cut the sweetness. Even more yummy than before.

Only days later, the women of my old New Jersey writing group decided to reunite for lunch this week. “I don’t have time to make anything,” I said. “But I can stop at a bakery on my way.”

“Don’t buy anything,” said one of the hostesses. “You always have something you’ve made. What’s in your fridge?”

“Hmmm,” said the Kitchen Goddess. “I do have this tasty rhubarb compote. And a couple of ripe New Jersey peaches. If we put it all on some good Greek yogurt, it’ll be great for dessert.” And so it was.

Kitchen Goddess note on buying and storing rhubarb: Rhubarb is a vegetable, so no surprise that in its plain, raw state, it’s very tart. But you through it into a pot with sugar,  that generally gets treated like a fruit. Because of its high water content, it cooks down quickly, so it’s often used in pies, ice cream/sorbets, and sweet sauces. Though the stalks look like smooth celery, the plants aren’t related; but you should look for the same qualities – firm, crisp stalks – to determine freshness. The cut ends of the stalks should not look withered. The fresher stalks will also have a bit of sheen. They range in color from green to deep red, and while the red ones are younger, thinner, more tender, and slightly sweeter, it doesn’t make much difference if you’re cooking them in a pot with sugar – which, by the way, is how most rhubarb is treated, because plain, raw rhubarb is very tart. The leaves, which are toxic, are often cut off before the stalks are sold. Do not eat any leaves that remain on your stalks.

According to the clever Cook’s Illustrated people, the best way to store fresh rhubarb (and apparently celery as well – who knew?) is to wrap the stalks tightly in aluminum foil, leaving the ends of the package open, thus allowing the ripening hormone, ethylene, to escape. Wrapped thusly – or so they say – stalks will keep almost two weeks. If you need to keep it longer, cut the stalks into pieces ½-1 inch long, and freeze them in an airtight container. They’ll keep that way for a year.

By the way, it’s often easy to find rhubarb – chopped and frozen – in the frozen foods area of your supermarket.

Rhubarb Compote

Adapted from Mary Cech in Bon Appétit, April 2006.

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

1½ pounds fresh rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon kosher salt
zest of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about ½ fresh lemon)
2 tablespoons ginger liqueur, or a 1-inch piece of ginger, or use Cointreau

Combine the first six ingredients – all but the ginger or liqueur – in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir the mix constantly until the sugar is well dissolved. Once the mixture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to let the rhubarb simmer. Cover the saucepan and let the simmer continue for 8-10 minutes, then check the consistency of the compote. (Some people like it chunkier than others.) If you want the consistency to be more like applesauce, continue cooking for a couple more minutes.

Remove the compote from the heat and stir in the ginger liqueur. If you are using raw ginger instead, grate the ginger into a small bowl, then transfer the grated ginger to a fine seive and press down on the ginger to release the juice. OR... Use a garlic press to squeeze the grated ginger into the compote. Stir well.

Let the compote cool, then store it in the refrigerator.

What to do with it now that you have rhubarb compote:

– Stirred into plain yogurt, for breakfast or dessert;
– Over vanilla ice cream;
– On pancakes or waffles, in lieu of syrup;
– Wrapped in crepes;
– With ice cream or whipped cream, in a parfait;
– If it’s still chunky, in Rhubarb Shortcake (instead of the strawberry variety);
– As the fruit sauce in Eton Mess (click here for recipe).

Love that rhubarb!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Home Alone

What’s cooking? Dave’s Baby Back Ribs and Cherry-Jalapeño Relish

My prince was at a college reunion a few weeks ago, so I spent 5 days luxuriating in the solitude – slothing around in jammies much of the day, working on the piles in my office, trying in vain to get my taxes completed, ... and an assortment of what my hubby calls “random strikes.”

But I wasn’t nearly as productive as I thought I’d be. That’s because I also seized the opportunity to indulge in the sorts of television shows that would elicit endless scorn were he here.

This time, even I would classify my entertainment as really bad TV: three Thin Man movies, several episodes of “Murder She Wrote,” and FIVE Perry Mason movies made back in the ’30s, before anyone thought of putting Raymond Burr into the role.

These starred a guy named Warren William, who wikipedia tells me was a big name on Broadway in the ‘20s, and a second-tier silent actor until sound came along and they discovered he had an amazingly resonant, velvety voice, at which point he became a star of the early talkies. And here he was as Perry Mason, my favorite champion of justice for all.

Genevieve Tobin as Della Street, Warren William as Perry Mason, Patricia Ellis as Margie Clune in The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935).

My love affair with Perry probably goes back to the early days of the television series, which ran an astonishing nine years, beginning in 1957. And when I discovered the hardcover collection of Erle Stanley Gardner’s stories in my local public library, I tossed aside Nancy Drew and entered the world of grown-up mysteries. I absorbed every aspect of Perry Mason’s character; Raymond Burr’s surly, thoughtful demeanor as the lawyer was, to my pre-teen mind, perfect. (Apparently Mr. Gardner agreed with me: While watching Burr’s screen test, Gardner reportedly stood up, pointed at the screen and said, “That’s Perry Mason.”)

 Raymond Burr and William Hopper in "The Case of the Restless Redhead"

The Warren William character was totally different from the Perry I knew and loved. As played by William, Mason is suave, cheeky, very much a ladies man, and – drum roll, please... – an amateur gourmet cook. Hahahahaha... So I watched.

The “cooking” scenes were painfully bad. Early in the story, Perry celebrates winning a big case by taking over the kitchen at his favorite restaurant, where he sets out to make some crab dish with white wine and parmesan cheese. The head chef and other kitchen staff gather around to watch the great man cook, but then a woman shows up – an old girlfriend who says she needs to talk to him – so in the middle of cooking, he whips off his apron and dashes out to a table in the restaurant. And we never return to the kitchen. Ah, right – just the way you’d expect it to happen. The rest of it was fun in the way you’d enjoy hearing stories about an old boyfriend who’d been a scoundrel in his youth but now you know him as a responsible grown-up.

In the midst of all this bad TV, I was invited to a barbecue, featuring my friend Dave at the helm of his big green egg. Which, as you can see, is actually red. But Dave is a master at this piece of equipment – regardless of its color – producing sausages and ribs that have the Kitchen Goddess in awe. This particular performance featured only baby back ribs, but oh, man. So I have convinced him to share his m.o. with you lucky readers.

And because the KG can’t stand to be totally upstaged, she found a delightful relish starring cherries, which fortunately will be in season through August. It turned out to be a great accompaniment to Dave’s ribs, so the recipe is here, following Dave’s star turn.

Dave’s Ribs

Dave claims that his ribs are pretty simple. KG says he’s just being modest. But Dave is an engineer, and he has clearly experimented enough to get the process down to perfection.

Special Equipment

Aura Rib and Roast V-Rack, $19.95 at
■ Ceramic smoker like a Big Green Egg or a knock-off.

■ V-rack or rib rack, for positioning the ribs inside the smoker.

Akorn Kamado Smoking Stone, $39.78 at Home Depot.
■ Ceramic plate (also called a smoking stone) for keeping direct heat off the ribs.

■ Whole lump charcoal.

■ Wood chips – If you look around the web, you’ll see praise for a wide variety of wood chips used in smoking. The Kitchen Goddess found recommendations for oak, hickory, maple, mesquite, pecan, apple, alder, and cherry. Whew. Dave doesn’t think the type of wood makes much difference with ribs. He likes mesquite or hickory, but leans toward hickory because he finds that it works best for a range of meats. He says mesquite is a bit strong for poultry, so to keep life simple, he sticks to hickory for smoking everything.

■ Meat thermometer (or two, depending on whether you are an engineer).

Kitchen Goddess note on meat thermometers: Dave uses “a small cheap Taylor thermometer that has maintained accuracy and has survived a fair amount of abuse.” And like any good engineer, he keeps a spare as backup. The Kitchen Goddess likes to spend more for her equipment, on the theory that, well..., more is better. So she has a fancy-schmancy digital version: the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm ($59). It’s the favorite of America’s Test Kitchen folks, and you know how they torture a product before they commit. This gizmo is easy to operate, with clear and straightforward labeling of the various functions, but as far as I can tell, only available through the ThermoWorks company. And no, they did not give the KG a free one – or even a coupon for a few bucks off – though they certainly should now that I think about it... So no backup, but then I'm not an engineer.


■ 3 racks of loin back or baby back ribs will feed 10 people with 3-4 ribs each. According to Dave, if you followed his recipe and have ribs left over, you invited the wrong people.
■ Barbecue sauce: Unlike the Kitchen Goddess, Dave says most BBQ sauces should work – homemade or commercial. Use your favorite. Dave uses Head Country BBQ sauce from Ponca City, OK. The Kitchen Goddess prefers to make her own, which is her dad’s recipe, HERE.


Start by soaking your wood chips in water for 30 minutes.

Set up the smoker with the ceramic plate (for indirect heat) and the v-rack or rib rack (to ensure that the ribs are standing and not lying flat). Once the coals are hot, drain the chips and add them directly to the fire. Let the chips heat up for 10 minutes – to develop the smoke – before you add the food to the grill.

Low heat keeps the ribs moist. Shoot for 225º F.

At 225º, the 3 racks should take 6-7 hours to reach an internal temperature of 170º. [Kitchen Goddess note: Don’t mess around here – use that meat thermometer!]

Mop your ribs with BBQ sauce to start and then again every hour to two.  Dave says some purists like a dry rub; he has used one but finds the end product fine without.

Replenish the wood chips midway through smoking. (Again, soak the chips for 30 minutes before adding them to the fire.)

Some recipes suggest wrapping the meat in foil for the last hour or so, to retain moisture. Dave says the ribs should not dry out if you keep the heat low and monitor the meat temperature.

While the meat is slowly absorbing all that wonderful heat and smoke, make the Cherry-Jalapeño Relish.

Cherry-Jalapeño Relish

Adapted from Amy Scattergood and Donna Deane in the Los Angeles Times (June 25, 2008)

It’s high season for California cherries, which is why I wasn’t surprised when one of my foodie newsletters showed up with a link to an article about the fruit from the LA Times. I’m a big fan of cherries, so I followed the link. Wow – what a nice accompaniment it would be to Dave’s smoked ribs. It seemed a little mild, so I added a bit of jalapeño. Next time, I might also try chopping some cilantro with the cherries. If you try the cilantro and like it, let me know. The California authors of the original recipe say it’s a great accompaniment to grilled chicken, pork, sausages, lamb or beef.

Yield: 3 cups relish.

KG uses this tiny melon baller -- so cute -- to extract the cherry pits, but you
can also use... a cherry pitter!

1 tablespoon minced red onion
1 tablespoon lemon juice, plus zest from ½ lemon
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 pound cherries (large Bing cherries are easiest, but any sweet cherries will do), stemmed and pitted
2 teaspoons finely diced jalapeño pepper (seeds and ribs removed)
½ teaspoon minced tarragon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 mounded tablespoons of yellow bell pepper, in ¼-inch dice


1. Combine the lemon juice, zest, and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl and add the red onion. Let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes. This pickling process will take the pungency out of the onion.

2. Pulse the cherries in a food processor until coarsely chopped, then place the chopped cherries in a medium bowl. Stir in the onion, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and tarragon. Add the salt, and 4-5 grinds of pepper.

3. Gently fold in the yellow pepper. Cover and let stand at least 15 minutes for the flavors to meld. Adjust salt/pepper to taste.

And a happy July 4th celebration to you all!