These days, if you find yourself at the green market, you’ll hardly remember the cold days that are not-so-long behind us. Gone are the Saturdays when our only options were tubers and root vegetables. Suddenly the market is alive! There is plenty of green, new scents, new stalls. The overwintered leeks, the delicate new salad greens, asparagus, ramps! In no time we will see (and smell!) the first of the strawberries – these will be truly magical weeks when you’ll be tempted to eat your berries before you get home from your weekly trip.
But favorite spring moment at the greenmarket isn’t when I spy the first strawberries of the season, or the first green spears of asparagus. It’s when I find rhubarb, green with hot pink hues, firm and sturdy, piled high. Most people grab a few stalks satisfied with their bounty, but me – I get several pounds at a time, greedily stuffing my bags with the tart fruit.
This year, in particular, I’ve been experimenting with rhubarb more than usual. I love its versatility in both savory and sweet dishes. I love that, just like a talented actor, rhubarb’s supporting role is often essential in bringing the whole dish together – much like a performance in a play. I am also partial to the tart notes that can break up the cloying monotony of an otherwise sweet ingredient, like strawberries.
But, rhubarb isn’t just for strawberry pairings, you know. It needs its own spotlight to shine with perhaps another ingredient acting as a canvas to highlight its true talents. In the past, I have been stewing rhubarb with a generous helping of sugar until it fell apart into a jam-like slurry, which I would mix into my morning yogurt, or spruce up the otherwise-boring breakfast oatmeal.
But last year, upon a recommendation from a friend, I started roasting it. And it’s been revelatory. For one, your pieces of rhubarb stay intact, which is sort of remarkable, given the fruit’s talents for practically dissolving. And another thing – roasted rhubarb, sitting a top a thick layer of homemade ricotta spread over a piece of rustic bread – is nothing short of heaven!
This spring, in attempts to coax even more flavor and fragrance from my rhubarb stalks, I decided to switch out my vanilla extract for the real vanilla bean, and add a few spoons of delicately perfumed rose syrup to the mix. While I’m still weary of rose water, its scent far too harsh for me, the rose syrup is softer, more delicate, and accents the rhubarb in the most perfect of ways, making the whole dish sing.
But my favorite part is that in the time it takes you to watch and episode of the Daily Show, you can have your roasted rhubarb and eat it too! Instant gratification – a nice foil for spring’s delayed arrival.
Roasted Rhubarb with Vanilla and Rose Syrup
3/4 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons demerara sugar
3 tablespoons rose syrup
1. Position the oven rack in the middle and preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Stir together the rhubarb, zest, juice, vanilla, sugar and rose syrup, and stir to combine. Set aside for 15 minutes to allow the fruit to macerate.
3. Spread the rhubarb and juices out on the baking sheet, making sure to position each piece of rhubarb flat against the sheet. Roast for 20 minutes, until rhubarb is soft and grows pale in color. Set on a baking rack to cool. Roasted rhubarb will keep for up to 3 days, refrigerated.