There is no good reason to be afraid of vegetables, but for a long time I was scared of rhubarb. Probably because my mother would remind me every spring that the leaves are poisonous and I shouldn’t touch them. But my six older brothers and sisters would eagerly wolf down rhubarb compote or rhubarb strawberry crumble, and my competitive nature eventually forced me to face that fear and get my fair share. Now, when it’s full-blown rhubarb season, I can concentrate on little else.
Rhubarb is a curious, somewhat misunderstood plant. It is particularly sour or bitter in its natural state, a taste profile that typically signals dangerous foods (according to the USDA, eating 11 pounds of the leaves could kill you). Its stalks are various shades of green and red, slender or thick, hidden by an overarching canopy of those leaves. Despite its natural shortcomings, rhubarb has been a staple on many a farm table for years, whether sweetened with healthy amounts of sugar for compote, or pickled and canned for year-round flavor.
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The beauty of rhubarb compote is that its flavor complexity comes from simple ingredients. At the heart of any recipe, sugar is about the only addition you need. But, why stop there? Strawberries are a classic partner, adding natural sweetness and a more appealing shade of red. I frequently include a squeeze of lemon or orange juice and zest to brighten the flavor, and add vanilla extract or vanilla bean to soften and round out the sweet-tart composition. As a finishing crescendo, a bit of beet powder naturally enhances the color and chases away the usual green-gray undertone. At this point, the compote will disappear by the bowlful.
After spending the last few months studying gelato and sorbet recipes, I discovered that the creamy smooth texture of cooked rhubarb could be the magic ingredient for a fat-free, flavorful sorbet. I started by blending the compote into a ribbony silk custard and adding airy volume with my trusty Vitamix 750 (still my new BFF in the kitchen) before transferring it to the ice cream maker. Halfway through processing, I threw in some diced candied ginger for a hint of peppery spice. Will it replace vanilla as the overwhelmingly most popular ice cream flavor in the U.S.? Doubtful, but I’ll keep tinkering with it all the same.
Rhubarb Sorbet With Candied Ginger
Makes 10 cups
2 cups water
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup orange juice
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 cups rhubarb, cubed (approximately 3 pounds)
3 cups strawberries, hulled and rough cut
Zest of one orange and one lemon each
1 tablespoon of beet powder (optional)
⅛ cup finely diced, candied ginger (optional)
1. Add first six ingredients to a 6- to 7-quart stockpot or Dutch oven and stir over medium high heat until dissolved.
2. Add rhubarb, strawberries and zest to the pot. Stir to incorporate and bring to boil before reducing heat to medium for a healthy simmer. The mixture will reach a cooking temperature of between 200 to 208 F. Total cooking time should be approximately 30 minutes until the compote is thick and syrupy.
3. Remove from heat and stir in beet powder for color (optional).
4. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours until completely cool.
5. Processing in 2-cup batches (or whatever size best suits your ice cream maker), place compote in blender and process at highest speed for one minute. Transfer to ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s directions.
6. If you are adding the optional candied diced ginger, follow the ice cream maker instructions. Typically, the “add-ons” are not mixed in until the last 10 minutes of processing time.
7. Sorbet usually requires additional freezer time to set up more firmly. If it is not consumed right away and has been solidly frozen, allow 10 to 12 minutes resting time from freezer before serving.
Compote can be frozen in any batch size and stored before defrosting and processing.
Top photo: Rhubarb compote sorbet. Credit: Caroline J. Beck