Savory Rhubarb Strawberry Sauce

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When I post a photo on Instagram of a dish I have made, I struggle to write a caption that’s quick and to the point, because I so want to explain everything about the dish. There is so much more to say about it than what it plainly is. Even the photo above has a story. It looks like a pile of chopped rhubarb. But there’s so much more to it! Like how I started growing these plants ten years ago after answering a post on GardenWeb from someone who needed to get rid of this amazingly huge and happy patch. I can squint and see the man and his cute house, walking the wilting plants in his arms to my car. And how after years of consistent growth, this year the rhubarb is a tangle of snaky stalks. I have been pulling them and finding uses for these slender slips, like a fresh relish or a cake’s garnish. I think I like them best in this new favorite recipe. It’s a savory sauce based on a gastrique, a kind of sweet and sour fruit sauce that goes great with rich meats.

Please note that there is a special ingredient in this recipe: rhubarb vinegar. Awhile back, when I was dealing in large quantities of rhubarb for my little jam company, I would have pounds of rhubarb ends that were not good for jam but good for making syrup or vinegar. Simply chop up these bits (no leaves, please!) and put them in a jar and cover with white vinegar. It doesn’t come out overpoweringly rhubarb-y, picks up a sweet shade of pink, and works wonders for a salad. I highly recommend making some! I still have at least a quart left. However, if you don’t have tons of rhubarb at your disposal, you can just as easily use white or apple cider vinegars.

Initially I was going to make this straight-up rhubarb but I threw a few strawberries in for color. I’m glad I did. There’s something about the combination of rhubarb and strawberries that’s not just about the timing of their harvest. They seem to round out each other’s tartness and bring about a buttery smoothness when combined. Sort of like when you meet someone who rounds you out in all the good ways: calming down your anxious tendencies and providing a foil for your kindness and sense of humor. It makes for a fine marriage.

Savory Rhubarb and Strawberry Sauce

Yield: 1 half-pint

¼ cup of rhubarb vinegar

¼ cup of water

¼ cup of sugar

1 cup of finely chopped rhubarb

1 handful of strawberries, small ones sliced in half

Salt and fresh cracked pepper

Put all the ingredients in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Keep at a good boil for about ten minutes until everything has broken down, and it’s a uniform sauce. Add some salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste–I’d say a pinch of salt just for balance but not to make it salty, and a few good grinds of pepper so that you will hit a spicy crunch every now and then. I don’t think it needs to be pureed as the small dice will ensure a fairly smooth sauce, but if you prefer a smoother sauce go ahead!

 

 

Field Notes: Middle June

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The other day an old friend wrote to me out of the blue to discuss days far gone that still seem to glitter so brightly in their opinion. I guess I felt that way for a long time, but in the last ten years the shiny glow has faded and the reality of it all came slowly into focus, like a glacial scratch and win that holds such promise until you see you clearly haven’t won. Not that I regret those days, I just don’t pine for them. My vision of them is more lucent, less hazed over by nostalgic notions. Middle age can really help clear those fuzzy feelings you used to have, and I kind of like the bluntness this kind of reality offers. After so many anxious years, I can finally see that I like where I am, and how I got here.

I was thinking all this on a long bike ride on the rail trail that I used to ride on in those halcyon days so long ago. We would tumble out of our rental in the woods after band practice and roll down the rail trail to the luminous turquoise water of the old dolomite quarry. We’d swim among the rusty old trucks still in the water, left decades ago as if the mine had filled with water and everyone rushed out in a hurry. I would never swim there now, and I don’t want to return to that time, even though I do conjure up these memories and admire them like a favorite stone found in a riverbed. I rode past the cold blasts from the old mines, and then back out by the farm fields lush with crickets and bees, toasted by the sun, the smell of the wild roses mixing with autumn olive blossoms like a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit gum.

We’ve been getting so much rain that when given the opportunity of a clarion day—blue-skied and cumulus-clouded—I was all too happy to take this ride through the green-bowered tunnel that is a rail trail. We are lucky to have so many of these old train tracks turned walking and biking paths snaking through New York. I’m fascinated with European holloways and their mysterious beauty, and I guess our rail trails are somewhat like them. Wherever I hike and find any kind of old roads, the outline of wheel ruts sunk in the ferns, the way trees are cleared out and you can see straight through for a long way, it reminds me of the past, though whose past it is, I don’t know. Sometimes you will find a bit of old track on the rail trails, jutting out from the dirt, another historic morsel to chew on. Why are these touches of human hands so enticing? It’s a thread of time, and who isn’t taken in by the romance of the past, whether our own or someone else’s?

Later that day, I sat in the garden as twilight came on, the wood thrush trilling in the distant trees, and looked down at my bounty. A quart basket of strawberries, a pint of snow peas (the first actual harvest of the season!), and a bowl of tender greens. I suddenly had a deep feeling of true success. All these years do amount to something, but maybe that something isn’t always what you planned on back when you were younger and getting caught up in other people’s versions of success. Who would have thought that when I was digging up a garden in that rental house in the woods when I was twenty that I was laying the groundwork for this future success, sitting in my garden at forty-seven? That was a tough patch to clear, and the deer ended up eating all our tomatoes, and though a bit of it still glitters, I have no interest in going back. There are other future rows to hoe. Maybe even for that older me.

Field Notes: Beginning of June

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The beginning of June is when the bumpy season of spring starts to hit her stride–the green of the leaves has matured a bit, not quite as bright and chartreusely translucent, and when the winds come the leaves in the trees sway lushly, thick and filled out fully. In the garden, actual real food is starting to grow–what comes to mind first is the ripe scarlet of the strawberries in the garden, and the two-toned green and red of the rhubarb. I have them growing right next to each other, right above the asparagus. Nestled between two rows of asparagus there is an abundant bed of lettuce, so tender when just dressed with a bit of olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Today I spotted the first snow peas of the season, which I can’t wait to gather basketfuls of to blanch and eat by the handful. The beans are poking their heavy little heads out of the soil, and the tomatoes already have flowers. This time of year is at it’s most hopeful. Abundance seems so definite, though a seasoned gardener knows not to get too excited. The promise that a tended garden holds is a guarded one.

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One of the most exciting things about June that happens outside of the garden (and therefore has no lingering anxiety tethered to it) has got to be the filling out of the ferns on the forest floor. When they get to their full height of about three feet, they are still young and light green, and slightly sticky when you run your hands through them, as I like to do when I walk. There are certain spots I make sure to visit so I can experience them fully. Each direction you turn yields a kaleidoscopic view of fractal green, waving in the breeze. There’s something about them that dazzles the eye. I don’t know much about ferns except that they are ancient plants that are rather complex, so I think that I’ll just admire them from a distance. There is only too much you can know about, you know? However, you can’t help but to think to yourself, look at this plant that’s been around for thousands of years, and yet the Wikipedia entry has to note: “Ferns are not of major economic importance…” Maybe that’s why they have stuck around so long!

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Profit seems to be a defining attribute that humans apply on their surroundings. Another exciting sign of early June in the forest is the ganoderma tsugae, or some call reishi, a shelf fungus that is like a shiny lacquered shell hugging the sides of hemlock trees. It starts out like shmoo-like blobs (for lack of a better description) that truly beg to be touched. They are slightly squishy and damp when you give in to the temptation. It seems that these medicinal mushrooms have been catching the eye of profiting gatherers. Is any kind of greed a good kind of greed, I wonder?

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Food Journal: Buttermilk Caramel Cake

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This recipe was born of a need to use up excess whey. I didn’t think much of it, just your basic squishy cake, yet there was a lot of interest in this cake the other day when I posted it on Instagram, so I thought it garnered a post. This is an easy old-fashioned cake, large enough for bringing to a picnic or potluck, perfect to bring to a neighbor in need of comfort, or just good to have around for those cake-y cravings. It truly comes together in just a few minutes. It’s like a coffee cake, but bouncier in texture, as opposed to crumbier. Such a forgiving cake! If you only have one egg, use 1/4 cup applesauce instead, which is what I did for the one above. Whey or buttermilk are interchangeable. If you don’t have either, use milk with 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in it. Or half yogurt mixed with half milk. Let me know how it comes out! I’ve made it only twice, so I’d love to hear what you changed or tweaked!

Buttermilk Caramel Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a glass 8×12 pan well. (9×13 will work as well, maybe better! I am a thrift store shopper, and all my pans are weird sizes…) 

3 cups of all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup brown sugar (or half white/half brown)

2 eggs

2 cups of buttermilk or whey

1/2 cup of oil (I use safflower)

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

1/4 to 1/3 cup caramel sauce (the only non-pantry item in here, you can absolutely leave this out. Of course, then it will not be a buttermilk caramel cake, but just a buttermilk cake.)

Put all dry ingredients into a bowl. Whisk up wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Pour the wet into the dry. Mix thoroughly, but don’t over mix. Pour half the mixture into the prepared pan. Then, using a spoon or measuring cup, drizzle caramel sauce throughout. Add the rest of the batter on top, and finish with another layer of caramel sauce. I do lines back in forth both ways, and it ends up like a plaid splattered Jackson Pollack look. If you leave big splotches of caramel sauce it will open the cake up as it bakes, but thin drizzles will make a cool pattern. Bake for forty minutes. It will be a little gooey on top in the center. If it’s really sticky, cover it with tinfoil and bake another five or ten minutes. It might still look a tiny bit sticky and unbaked in the very center, but it should set as it cools.

 

 

Field Notes: The End of May

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We have officially transitioned from early spring to late spring, though the change has been a bumpy one. There have been sweltering hot days offset by chill and damp ones. Not quite a normal spring. One of the more noticeable signs for me is that the big old dogwood behind the shed out back has lost all of its cream-colored petals and has fully leafed out. Every morning in the blue pre-dawn light I would marvel at its cascading flowers glowing brightly. The lush grass and budding trees and bushes would remain crepuscular and mysterious, but the dogwood would be alive and kicking, no pre-dawn twilight could keep it down. Now it’s back to its behind-the-scenes modesty, just simply being a tree behind the shed, its moment of fame evaporated into the ether.

Another sure sign of late spring’s arrival is the end of morel season. But boy what a season! I think everyone found a morel this year. I have read that it was a once-in-a-ten-year explosion. I haven’t been seriously looking for that long, so I wouldn’t know. I have been aware of the morel mystery for a long time though, even wrote a short story about them over ten years ago. Back then I thought I’d never find one, but now I know how hard you have to look. This year I found them all over. Friends gave me some! People who don’t even look found them in the weirdest places. Popping out of gravel and sidewalks! Under a line of spruces between two driveways! These are all anomalous places compared to the general rule of dying elms, ashes and abandoned apple orchards. But morels are nothing if not anomalous, in my opinion.

This year, I found them under every one of these types of trees. It was an exciting time, and I feel now as if I had been swept up in a weird wave. Every spare moment was given to exploring possible sites. All my free thinking time was spent wondering where I would go next. Frankly, this obsession is exhausting, and I’m rather glad it’s done! Now when I walk I’m back to my thoughts, instead of wondering where the morels are. Is it like a crush? Although I found several different spots, I picked only a few from each patch. I have a rule that if there are only a few I don’t take any. And when there are a good ten or so, I’ll take about half. It’s not that they are endangered, it’s just the general etiquette. I dehydrated some, and the rest I ate sautéed in a good amount of butter, cooking them thoroughly, served on a good piece of sourdough toast. Did you know that you have to cook morels thoroughly? All wild mushrooms really. And some folks can have a bad reaction to them even after having them with no prior upset before. Always be careful when eating wild mushrooms.

Now my obsession is turned towards the garden, as the still-green strawberries fatten up  and tomatoes are finally planted in the garden. I direct sow most of my garden, but I always buy tomatoes plants. I just don’t have the patience to start them myself. The past few years I have been buying them at the Northern Dutchess Botanical Garden–organic seedlings, great selection and only $1.49 a pop. There are so many great local sales to visit, but it can get crowded and expensive. I bought two Opalkas, which was last year’s winner, a paste variety that is equally delicious canned or sliced for the table. Other tomatoes: Sun Golds, Early Girls, Paul Robeson, Black Krim, Pineapple Beefsteak, and Principe de Borghese, among a few other randoms. The planting of the tomatoes is so filled with hope and desire, adequately taking over the obsession of the morels.

 

Random Notes: Now that the summer is here, I will have less time to be prolific here so I’ve decided to do one post a week, alternating Field Notes with my Kitchen Journal posts. I hope you’ll stick around! Stay tuned on Instagram for almost daily posts…

Roasted Radishes

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Do you, like me, have a hard time thinning your radish seedlings and end up with a lot of radishes that are more greens than actual radishes? Then you will want to give this idea a go. It’s been a very crisp and cold spring here so roasting seemed a natural. I am guessing that when it turns 90 degrees on Thursday I won’t want to roast vegetables anymore, but for those cold days in between this has been a really perfect snack.

I know roasted radishes are a thing, but I wondered about the greens. I was staring at a pile of teeny tiny radishes with lots of greens attached and wondered how to eat it all. The radishes were very tiny and super hot. Not enough to pickle. Too spicy to eat raw. I get bored with making pesto out of everything green, and radish greens can be a little bit tough and sometimes even a little fuzzy. But do this: apply some olive oil, sea salt and 350 degrees of heat for about ten minutes and you will have a crispy and delicious pile of radish green chips attached to some delectable little radishes that have softened and sweetened. I highly recommend having this alongside roasted fennel and a small glass of soda water with a splash of aperol and blood orange juice.

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Roasted Rhubarb Custard

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It’s rhubarb time! This year the stalks have been looking so thin that I was wary to harvest. Why was my rhubarb was so spindly? Lots of stalks, but all of them are skinny and spindly, not huge and robust as they have been in the past. When I look it up there are two competing ideas on this–either the plant has too little food or that it needs to be divided. I’ve had these plants over five years, and I have divided them. So could it be that they need some food? I plan to give them the rest of last year’s compost, and we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I harvested a small bunch. I’m the only rhubarb lover in the house so what to make would be my decision entirely. My favorite is rhubarb custard pie, but I was feeling lazy about making a pie crust. A light bulb went off above my head: why not just make the custard? And so here it is: simple and luscious, served with mascarpone it makes an elegant dessert, and served with some thick freshly-drained yogurt it makes a perfect breakfast. You may eat it throughout the day. I did!

Roasted Rhubarb Custard

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a glass dish. I mean generously!

1 pound of rhubarb

2 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

Cut the rhubarb how you see fit. Arrange it artfully in the prepared glass pan. Beat the eggs, sugar and salt until foamy and bright yellow. Pour this mixture over the arranged rhubarb. Bake until set, about 15 to 20 minutes. It will puff up and be golden. If you forget about it, and let it go too long, the custard will separate. It’ll still taste good though! (That’s what happened to me!)

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Staying Hungry

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