By Janet Kolodner
I found rhubarb at Whole Foods last week, the first of the season!! And today I made a batch of rhubarb sauce. It’s easy to make; similar to applesauce, you cut the rhubarb in pieces, put a little water over it, add a cinnamon stick (or not), let it come to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, turn it off a bit before it gets to the consistency you want, let it cool a while, and then flavor it. You can add strawberries or apples as it is cooking. Unlike applesauce, which may or may not need sugar depending on type of apples you use, rhubarb sauce always needs to be sweetened; I use sugar, but you could use agave or an artificial sweetener (I’ve never tried it).
I grew up outside of Philadelphia eating rhubarb sauce every spring. I remember my mother making it for Pesach, but I may be mistaken about that, as I’ve never found it that early, and Wikipedia says that the only rhubarb available in early spring is grown in hothouses. I assume it was not grown that way when I was growing up so many decades ago.
What I do remember correctly is eating rhubarb sauce over cheese blintzes. A real treat!!! My parents invited all the relatives over for Shavuot. My mother made cheese blintzes, applesauce, and rhubarb sauce. She served sour cream for the blintzes as well. She put out a tray of lox, whitefish, sable, and other cured fish (with bagels, cream cheese, and sliced onions and tomatoes), and we all had a feast.
I’ve never made blintzes, but I do make rhubarb sauce every Shavuot, and I continue making new batches into the summer (as my mother did) as long as I can find rhubarb. Usually I put strawberries in, sometime I put in apples, and sometimes I make rhubarb alone. I always use cinnamon, and early on when I began making it and couldn’t quite get the flavor right, I called my mother. She asked me whether I had put nutmeg in, and I hadn’t. So I always put nutmeg in as well.
I’m especially happy when I can find organic rhubarb, and the rhubarb at Whole Foods was organic. It cost $5 a pound, which is steep, but it usually doesn’t go much below $4 a pound at a supermarket or farmers’ market. The color of rhubarb stalks varies between red and green; I was told by a farmer that the color has nothing to do with the taste, so I buy it when I see it.
I don’t have a recipe for rhubarb sauce, so I sort of kept track of what I was doing this year as I made it. I think I bought about 2 ½ pounds; I know I added over a pound of strawberries to it.
Step 1: Wash the rhubarb stalks, cut them in pieces, and put them in a pot — about an inch long, but if the rhubarb stalk is very thick, cut the pieces smaller. (Note that rhubarb leaves are poisonous, so don’t use them; usually they are removed before you buy the stalks.)
Step 2: Add a bit of water and a cinnamon stick or two if you want; I think I added a quarter cup of water to the 2 ½ pounds of rhubarb; it was plenty. Rhubarb needs very little water because, it cooks, the stalks let off their water. I put in one skinny cinnamon stick.
Step 3: Cover and bring to a boil.
Step 4: Uncover, turn the heat down, and let it simmer. When about half of it is broken down, add the strawberries or apples if you want. I added strawberries.
Step 5: Keep it simmering until the rhubarb reaches almost the consistency you want (you may want to bring it up to a boil again and then keep it simmering); then turn it off. Apples and strawberries cook way faster than rhubarb; if you bring it to a boil and then down to a simmer, either will be done just a few minutes after the boil. Both the rhubarb and fruit will continue to break down after you turn the heat off, so if you want chunks in it, make sure to turn the heat off while you still see chunks.
Step 6: Let it cool for 10 minutes to a half hour to an hour — it should be at a temperature that will dissolve sugar and that you can comfortably taste.
Step 7: Time for flavoring. Take out lots of teaspoons!!! Begin by tasting the sauce. It will be very sour, but you are tasting first for cinnamon. If it doesn’t have enough cinnamon flavor, you will want to add more cinnamon (you can also decide that later). I put extra cinnamon in what I just made. I didn’t measure, but look at the picture. Add some nutmeg — only a little is needed, but it does make a difference. And add sugar. I start with a little (¼ cup to start this time), and I mix and taste. Surprise — it was just the right amount of sugar. I took another spoon and tasted again to make sure, as I’ve never gotten it right the first time before.
You can use brown sugar if you want; you can use agave; you can try sweetener of some other kind, natural or artificial, though I think honey has too much taste. If you’ve put in strawberries, you will need a lot less sugar than if you have not used strawberries. Some people like it very sweet; some like a residual sour taste. You can always add more sugar later, but you can’t take extra sugar away. Also, the taste will change as it cools, so you might want to taste it again before you serve it. As long as you bring it to room temperature, a small amount of extra sugar will dissolve as you stir it in.
This is also the time you might begin to feel that it is too watery. If so, stir in some agar to absorb the extra water. As long as it is still warm, the agar will do its job just fine.
Serve warm or cold or at room temperature. I like it slightly warm over ice cream (vanilla, ginger, or coffee) and room temperature over sorbet (mango, raspberry, strawberry) and (of course) blintzes.