Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.

For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with, yet you don’t want any food source to go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients.

Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary,  but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.

I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a  few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.

Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest!  You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).

I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.

Rhubarb Syrup and Soda

Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)

Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.

At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.

Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.

Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.

* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.

Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.

Cheers!

**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.

(Check back next week for more on versatile rhubarb.  Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Nothing says Spring like the bright freshness of rhubarb, the earliest vegetable to come to life in our garden each year. Everything about rhubarb is delightful. It’s not fussy. It’s tough—it can take spring’s unpredictable temperature swings. It’s reliable, coming back bigger and stronger every year. It’s a showoff with its gargantuan leaves and showy, red stalks.

Rhubarb’s massive leaves could serve as emergency umbrellas. But don’t eat them, please—they’re full of poisonous oxalic acid.

Perhaps its only flaw is that rhubarb needs winter’s cold to thrive. As a child of the hot South, I’d never even heard of rhubarb before that fateful summer when our family camped our way to visit my Minnesota cousins. I’ll always remember the moment Aunt Ruth handed me a saucer of deliciousness in the form of a triangle slice of rhubarb pie. I fell in love right then and there. Unfortunately, it was years before I made my way to a climate where rhubarb would thrive and I could bake my own rhubarb pies.

It’s images of pie that dance in most of our heads when we hear the word rhubarb, but this odd vegetable has lots of other culinary uses, too. Jam, for one (mm-m good). There are rhubarb breads, rhubarb wines, and non-alcoholic rhubarb drinks. We’ve even made rhubarb pickles. They’re more pulp than anything else, but I think they make a nice condiment, and they give a flavorful kick to stir-fry. I was surprised recently to learn that rhubarb is also used in savory dishes. You can find over 300 rhubarb recipes in the online Rhubarb Compendium. But you won’t find this recipe for Skillet Upside-Down Cake there.

I swear, this cake gives rhubarb pie a run for its money. While it doesn’t pack quite the puckery, acidic wallop as its counterpart with crusts, it still has enough tang to be interesting, which makes it a good way to introduce rhubarb to young, inexperienced palates.

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Oven: 350 degrees

Don’t you just hate it when you start mixing up a recipe only to discover these dreaded words: butter, at room temperature. Well, consider yourself forewarned. Don’t start mixing until you’ve given your butter a chance to warm up.

Topping:

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups (about six stalks) rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces

Batter:

½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature (See? I told you.)
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup milk

To make the topping, melt the ¼ cup of butter in a cast iron skillet.* Add brown sugar, stirring constantly until it melts and the mixture gets all bubbly. Remove from heat and layer pieces of rhubarb on top of butter-sugar mixture. You should have enough rhubarb to cover the pan in a more or less single layer.

In a mixing bowl, cream room temperature butter and white sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in salt and baking powder. With your mixer on a low setting, mix in flour, about a ½ cup at a time, alternating with milk and ending with the flour.

Pour batter over mixture in skillet. Batter may be so thick that you’ll need to dollop it into the pan by the spoonful, instead, and then gently spread it to even it out.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of cake and about halfway down (not so far that it encounters the rhubarb) comes out clean. (I always start checking after about 30 minutes. You don’t want it to get too dry.)

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Fresh from the oven

I never have the courage to turn my cake out onto a plate so that it really is upside-down, though the Gnome has had success with that method. If you want to give it a shot, let the cake cool a few minutes (5-10 max), loosen the edges with a knife and invert onto a serving plate.

First slice–just add fork

Serve alone or with ice cream or whipped cream.

NOTE: If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, you can substitute a nine-inch square cake pan. Heat your butter-sugar mixture in a frying pan or saucepan and transfer it to your baking pan before adding the rhubarb pieces.

Abundant is too tame a word to describe well-established rhubarb. If you have some in your garden or a corner of your yard, you know what I mean. Tune in right here in the coming weeks for a few more ideas on cooking with rhubarb.