Editor’s note: Helen Rennie wrote the Front Burner column from January to June 2007.
A few weeks ago, at Steve Johnson’s restaurant Rendezvous in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had a rhubarb epiphany. I was devouring a rhubarb compote and realized that raw rhubarb, quite simply, rocks.
Don’t get me wrong. I love warm, jammy rhubarb oozing out of pies and bringing a few rays of spring sunshine to muffins and coffee cakes. But when left raw, rhubarb evokes the almost forbidden pleasure of sashimi: a familiar flavor with a surprising texture.
Reproducing a restaurant dish without getting the recipe from the chef is like putting together a puzzle; you start with the corner and edge pieces, since their locations are obvious. In the case of the compote, I knew from the crunchiness of the rhubarb that it had never been heated. And I could tell that it was somehow sweetened, since rhubarb left to its own devices is as mouth-puckery as a lemon. Finally, the rhubarb had been mixed with dried apricots and cranberries, for a chutney-like consistency.
So I commenced my restaurant imitation by chopping up some rhubarb and tossing it with sugar and dried fruit, then leaving it alone for half an hour to let the sugar dissolve in the rhubarb juices.
The result tasted OK, but it was watery and lacked both the complexity and the magic of the dessert at Rendezvous. I tried adding cinnamon, minced ginger, grated orange zest, orange liquor, and even almonds to make it more interesting. Nothing worked. It was still just sweetened rhubarb, not Steve Johnson’s incredible compote.
There was only one thing to do: Return to Rendezvous.
Food writing is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. If it means another meal of feather-light potato gnocchi, beautifully browned skate wing, and that wonderful rhubarb compote, I am willing to suffer for the sake of science.
When Johnson stopped by our table to ask how everything was, I confessed my love for his rhubarb compote and asked him to share his recipe.
“Oh sure, I’ll email it to you,” said Johnson.
But my impatience got the best of me. Chefs are busy people, and by the time you get a recipe from them, the main ingredient might be out of season.
“I’m just curious — what’s in that syrup?” I asked, hoping to sniff out the necessary details.
“Honey and rosemary, and it sits for two days,” answered Johnson.
Aha! I was suspecting honey since the syrup had some body to it, but rosemary? I would have never guessed where that subtle complexity came from.
I gave it one more shot at home, tossing rhubarb with dried fruit, honey, rosemary, and a touch of orange liquor. It was hard to tell right away if it had worked, because the honey was too stiff. So I crossed my fingers and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, the first thing I did was sample it. Gone were the distinct flavors of honey and rosemary; they had fused into a single taste that was greater than the sum of its parts. Eureka!
At Rendezvous, the rhubarb compote is served with crème fraîche-flavored ice cream and fresh mint. I served my version three ways: atop panna cotta, over yogurt, and snarfed straight from the mixing bowl.
I suspect that this compote, with its chutney-like texture, would also make a great topping for pork chops or duck breasts. But at my house, it disappeared too fast to find out. I guess it’s time to buy more rhubarb.
Culinate columnist Helen Rennie is a food writer (check out her blog) and cooking teacher living in Boston.
Elsewhere on Culinate: Deborah Madison’s recipe for Summer Rhubarb and Blackberry Compote.
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