A new approach to rhubarb

A fresh and satisfying dessert highlights this spring delight without much sugar

fermented rhubarb

Photo: Christy Olsen Field
From vegetable stalks to fermented rhubarb to a whipped cream dessert, rhubarb tastes like spring.

Christy Olsen Field
Taste of Norway Editor

Spring is officially here with the rhubarb harvest. I’ve been a rhubarb enthusiast since I was a kid, and my love for the vegetable grows stronger by the year. Rhubarb was the first thing I planted when my husband and I bought our home, and I debated if eight plants were enough. (They’re not, and I have to supplement with weekly purchases at the farmers market.) I delight as the magenta stalks push through their way through the dirt, a promise that summer is soon on its way.

Rhubarb is a plant of conundrums: it’s technically a vegetable but treated like a fruit, the leaves are poisonous but the stalks are edible, and it thrives in the garden with neglect.

If you haven’t tried rhubarb yet, you’re in for a treat. It grows in long stalks with broad green leaves in late spring or early summer, ranging from deep ruby red to hot pink or green Rhubarb, known colloquially as “pie plant,” is famous for its mouth-puckering tartness and easy use in pie.

Rhubarb originated in north and central parts of Asia, and came to Norway in the 1700s. This perennial plant can survive long winters and low light, and is a welcome harbinger of late spring for gardeners.

It was originally cultivated for its roots as a powerful medicinal. From syrups to jams, pies to savory condiments, rhubarb brings a wealth of versatility to the table.

Norwegian tradition has several favorite ways to utilize rhubarb. Rabarbrasuppe is rhubarb cooked down in some sugar and water into a thick sauce (similar to applesauce), and often served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream for dessert. There’s also rabarbrakake, a simple cake studded with rhubarb that is equally good for breakfast, dessert, or coffee time. The adventurous dip rhubarb fresh from the garden in sugar and eat it raw. (Despite my lifelong love of rhubarb, I have yet to try this. Maybe this year?)

Though I try new rhubarb recipes every spring, I always make at least two batches of Rhubarb Cardamom Crisp with Buckwheat Streusel, a dessert I first had with Daytona Strong. The recipe was published in The Norwegian American in 2015 (see www.norwegianamerican.com/food/a-fresh-take-on-rhubarb-crisp).

When I asked a neighbor about her plans for her flourishing rhubarb patch, she replied off-hand, “Oh nothing. I probably won’t use it because I try to avoid sugar.”

I tried to mask my shock. How could you say no to rhubarb?

fermented rhubarb

Photo: Christy Olsen Field
Using a plastic ziploc helps keep the rhubarb submerged in its own brine.

It turns out you don’t need a ton of sugar to enjoy rhubarb, even for dessert.

This year, I’ve tried my hand at lacto-fermenting in the kitchen, with the guidance of the excellent cookbook Preserving Vegetables by Kirsten and Christopher Shockey. Fermenting vegetables is a technique that’s been used for generations all over the world for food preservation, with the added benefit of probiotics and nutritional density, not to mention total deliciousness. No special equipment is needed, just a good quality sea salt and a little time. I always have a ferment or two in process, and my fridge now has several jars of krauts and herb pastes, and I find new ways to incorporate them into my meals.

When I came across the recipe for fermented rhubarb with cardamom and ginger, my curiosity was piqued. With its Norwegian-inspired flavor profile, I had a feeling I was going to love it. I hope you do too.

Fermented Rhubarb with Cardamom and Ginger

fermented rhubarb

Fermented rhubarb, day 10. The flavor and color have mellowed and it’s ready to eat.

From Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.

ingredients:

1 lb. rhubarb, sliced

1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger

½ tsp. ground cardamom

1 scant tsp. unrefined sea salt

equipment:

quart-size glass jar

sandwich or quart-size Ziploc

Rinse the rhubarb in cold water. Cut thick rhubarb stems lengthwise once (or twice if very thick) and slice the sections. Put the pieces in a bowl and stir in the ginger and cardamom. Sprinkle in the salt and vigorously massage it into the rhubarb to release the water, about a minute or so. Cover the bowl and let it sit for 10 minutes, then massage again.

Transfer the rhubarb mixture to a quart-size jar, pressing down with your fist or a tamper (I use a cocktail muddler!) as you go to remove air pockets. More brine will release at this stage, and you should see the brine above the mixture. Top the ferment with a sandwich- or quart-size Ziploc bag. Press the plastic down on top of the ferment, and then fill the bag with water and seal; this will act as the weight to keep the brine above the rhubarb.

Set on a baking sheet to ferment, somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight, for 5 to 7 days. Check daily to make sure the mixture is submerged, pressing down as needed to bring the brine to the surface. You may see scum on top; it’s harmless.

You can start to test the ferment on Day 5. You’ll be surprised to find the puckering sourness of the rhubarb has mellowed; it will be pleasantly acidic, as though a splash of lemon juice were added.

Spoon the ferment into a smaller jar and tamp down to make sure the rhubarb is submerged in its own brine; screw on the lid, then store in the fridge. This will keep, refrigerated, for 2 months.

Can be used in the Rhubarb Fool (recipe below), but I also recommend it served over plain yogurt or as a relish. I’m sure it would also be excellent in a cocktail!

If you would like to join me in lacto-fermenting, I highly recommend Fermenting Vegetables by Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey. It’s full of illustrative photos and step-by-step instructions, and I find myself inspired by their creative recipes. The cookbook can purchased on Amazon or your local bookstore.

Rhubarb Fool

rhubarb recipes

Photo: Christy Olsen Field
Lacto-fermented rhubarb is folded into whipped cream for a treat that’s not too sweet. For a more dramatic presentation, layer the sauce and cream in tall parfait glasses.

Adapted slightly from  Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey. Reprinted with permission from the authors.

ingredients:

1 cup Fermented Rhubarb Infused with Ginger and Cardamom

2 cups fresh strawberries

2 tbsps. sugar

zest of one lemon

1 pint whipping cream

1 tsp. vanilla sugar (available at Scandinavian stores, or substitute with ½ tsp. vanilla extract)

equipment:

food processor

In a food processor, pulse together the fermented rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, and lemon zest. Set aside.

Whip the cream with the vanilla sugar into stiff peaks.

Fold the rhubarb-strawberry sauce into the whipped cream. Serve in small bowls. For a more dramatic presentation, layer the sauce and cream in tall parfait glasses.

Christy Olsen Field became the Taste of Norway Editor in April 2019. An enthusiastic home cook and baker, she lives north of Seattle with her husband and two young sons. She is a grantwriter for small nonprofits in the Seattle area. Write to her at food@na-weekly.com.

For other rhubarb recipes from The Taste of Norway, see:

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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