A favourite chef wrote today on Instagram that he was “stocking up summer for winter” as a caption to a table of vibrant fuchsia rose petals. His description held me for a bit; it says with exactitude what preserving food is all about — keeping summer bottled and jarred for those impossible days when sunshine seems so far away.
I’m a novice preserver. I can in small batch, I don’t have any fancy equipment (a big pot and some mason jars, c’est tout), and my enthusiasm comes and goes. I do know with certainty, though, my favourite thing to preserve.
I’ve written before on the topic of why I love rhubarb so much, but I haven’t written much about using the vegetable (or fruit, depending who you ask) as part of my kitchen repertoire. I also have discovered over time that many people are afraid of this blushing celery lookalike, as I urge them to buy a bunch at the market, while I gather up the stalks, as many as my arms will hold. Rhubarb is a versatile plant, cheap and abundant at its peak (here in Ontario that’s May or June, depending on the growing season) and can be used for sweet or savoury purposes.
One misnomer: you have to counteract rhubarb’s tartness with loads of sugar. Through trial and error, I’ve found that a 1:1 ratio of rhubarb and sweet fruit (think: strawberries, apples, ripe raspberries) doesn’t need much additional sweetener. For every four cups of rhubarb, when paired with a sweet fruit, you’ll need about one-quarter cup white sugar, or a bit less honey. This yields a tart but still dessert-like sauce. (Note that this excludes jam and jelly making, which require much more sugar for the product to set properly.)
A second misnomer: rhubarb is reserved for pies and other sweet things. It’s surprisingly perfect to pair with all manner of cheeses and meats, especially pork — a thick chop, loin or ham steak (the tangy-sweet quality works like pineapple does with picnic meats). Ruth Reichl wrote recently about a savoury rhubarb compote she concocted, which I’m itching to try. Marcus Samuelsson uses rhubarb in a chipotle-spiced pizza sauce, imploring us with some hyperbole to “take a stand against its duplicitous nature.” I’m adding this rhubarb-lentil curry to my “cook immediately” list.
A final misnomer, this one about canning: unless you have the equipment to boil the daylights out of jars and sterilize lids, and a cellar to store it all, canning isn’t going to happen for you. Definitely (definitely!) if you are canning for shelf stability and long term storage, follow thorough canning practices. But for most of us home cooks, who are canning small batch for our own families and near-term consumption, it needn’t be so scary. Give your jars and lids a good wash in hot, soapy water; dip them in boiling water; fill and seal. You’ll still hear the “POP!” of the lid firmly snapping into place, and your wares should be safe kept refrigerated for a few months.
Let common sense rule your kitchen: if your preserves smell or look funny, don’t eat them. Whether this is a short treatise on the benefits of canning or a love of rhubarb, I’m not sure. I do know that on this first sweet summer day of 2014, we owe it to ourselves to befriend less loved produce at market stalls, and bring it home with us to savour as long as we can.