Tart Rhubarb Compote: Muted in Color But Not in Flavor

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on May 1, 2014

Pity the ugly foods—the brown sauces and beef stews, the muddy curries and sautéed greens—that are phenomenally flavorful but sadly unpretty on the plate. These dishes are the bane of food photographers everywhere: challenging to style and shoot, stubbornly refusing to take orders and sex it up for the camera. Even an ingredient that might be vibrant when raw, like the stems of rainbow chard or a bouquet of spinach, can turn dingy and dull when cooked to tenderness.

So it is with rhubarb, which might glow more brightly than a neon sign in its natural state but can slump into an olive-tinged-with-lavender hue as it softens under heat. Is it a coincidence that these spring stalks are most often paired with berries, amping up the natural blush of the plant and making it more visually palatable? As a kid, I refused to eat rhubarb on sight alone. Cooked down with strawberries, it became invisible and I was parentally hoodwinked into falling in love with the vegetable. (Yes, it’s a veg! Another reason that rhubarb is so deceptive!)

tart rhubarb compote, via goodfoodstories.com
These days, I have no such hangups about what food looks like on my plate. I’m not the kind of gal who styles my meal when I’m not cooking for the camera and pulling a plate of leftovers together at 9:00 pm. I don’t care what it looks like when I’m starving, and I might even be mushing things up in the pot to make them reheat more quickly.

But when I am cooking for others, I have a reputation to uphold. And a surefire way to make cooked rhubarb look like the prettiest girl at the prom (as Zeek Braverman would say) is to put it next to something even more visually unappetizing but even more irresistible to eat. For me, that’s paté.

A lush wheel of goat cheese cloaked in an ashy rind has nearly the same effect. But that’s something I might eat for dinner on its own any night, and for sheer decadence, give me a terrine of moussed-up liver any day. A cracker topped with a smear of paté and a blob of rhubarb compote is not a thing of beauty—it’s a study in beiges and browns, one of the most depressing real-life Rothkos you’ll ever see—but it’s a Technicolor blend of tastes. Need more color? Try rhubarb compote in place of the traditional mayo in a banh mi that’s been spread lavishly with paté.

banh mi with rhubarb compote, via goodfoodstories.com
When I eat rhubarb with something so densely fatty and rich, I want it to be tart. Not sour—a bowl of unsweetened rhubarb is something you’d serve to your worst enemy—but tart, managed by a few spoonfuls of sugar that really do more than make the medicine go down. They brighten the mood immensely and bring out the best flavors in each stalk.

Pretty much every rhubarb recipe in the universe includes orange juice or zest in its ingredient lineup, but I think the citrus takes something away from the true flavor of the rhubarb. I’ve tried combinations six ways to Sunday, and the one I love most is what follows: barely any adornment, just a hint of ginger and sweet balsamic vinegar to balance the fresh and tangy.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa May 1, 2014 at 11:06 am

Looks (and sounds) amazing to me!

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Gburg May 2, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Easy to make and it looks as thiough it makes a great addtion to a lot of dishes.

Reply

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