In Search of the Perfect Red
Once in a while I stumble across a new idea on a food blog or in a magazine that makes me go, “No WAY! Why didn’t I think of that?”
Rhubarb sauce with beet juice and vanilla custard
That happened to me yesterday when I was looking up a rhubarb recipe. Now, in admitting this, I run the risk of having you all roll your eyes and say, “I do that all the time!” and in that case, my apologies. But if you haven’t heard of this, check it out:
You can put a cut-up beet in your rhubarb sauce to make it turn red, and no one will ever be the wiser.
Now I’m not one of those people who needs to have my rhubarb look like it had an accident with red food coloring. In fact, the first time I made a rhubarb dish for a demo in the Produce department, I remember a person or two suggesting that a drop of food coloring would make it look better, and I can remember being surprised. I simply had never heard of adding food coloring to, well, food to make it look different.
But I have to admit, many rhubarb recipes later, there is something so promising about the bright red of the stalks as you cut them up and then a little disappointing about the pinkish-beige color the rhubarb turns when it cooks. You can add strawberries, but I’ve never been a big fan of adding strawberries when they’re out of season. Is there any place where rhubarb and strawberries grow at the same time? Because it seems to me that one always ends before the next begins. I’m a fan of something Vermont cookbook author Ellen Ogden says: “What Grows Together, Goes Together” (this was in reference to throwing a cup of blueberries into zucchini bread).
Anyway, I was looking at the food blog “Simple Bites,” when I read a suggestion to put cut-up beets in rhubarb compote to make the colors pop. As it turned out, I had a large beet whiling away in my fridge (this IS Vermont, after all), so I peeled it, quartered it, and sure enough – you could watch the red juices bleed into the rhubarb. I tasted it before and after I added honey, and you could not taste the beet juice. Cool, huh?
Beets dye the rhubarb red (10 minutes into cooking)
(Incidentally, in googling the rhubarb/beet combination to see if anyone else had come up with this, I found an interesting recipe for Beet Rhubarb Jam in the Washington Post.)
I made a classic vanilla pudding to go on the side, this being Memorial Day, and while I know I probably should have done that pretty layered thing in a glass, it all ends up tasting the same on the spoon.
I saved the rest of the rhubarb compote in a large (16-oz) honey jar, which I will freeze for later – and I have to admit, there’s something about seeing the jeweled red compote that makes me smile.
Here are some more “Who Would Have Thought?” tips for cooking with rhubarb:
1. Do not use a metal pan or metal spoon when cooking with rhubarb. The oxalic acid in rhubarb reacts with aluminum, iron, and copper to turn the rhubarb an odd metallic color.
2. You can add a pinch of baking soda to rhubarb when cooking it for a sauce or pie. The alkaline quality of the baking soda neutralizes the acidity of the rhubarb, so you can add less sugar/honey to your recipe.
3. The color red in the stalks of rhubarb is an indication of variety, not ripeness. Generally, green varieties of rhubarb will need a little more sweetener (however, the weather from year to year also plays a role, too).
½ cup water
1 large beet, peeled and quartered
6 cups chopped rhubarb (about 1.5-2 pounds)
1/3-1/2 cup honey (to taste)
Put water in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pot with the beets. Bring to a boil and cook 1-2 minutes until beets start to release their juices. Add rhubarb and cook, stirring frequently, for about 8-10 minutes, or until rhubarb is cooked but a few chunks remain. Turn off heat and allow to cool. Remove beets and add honey to taste. Makes about 1 ½ quarts rhubarb compote.