Notice anything special about this rhubarb?
Wait, let me give you a closer look.
Too close? Sorry. How about this:
What we have here, friends, is an unusual specimen, indeed: a rhubarb sauce that manages to hold onto its bits. Rhubarb sauce, the one that I make, anyway, is typically a stovetop affair. The chopped rhubarb bits soften over a medium flame and, little by little, give themselves over to a dense, rosy sauce. Rhubarb sauce – the making of it, the eating of it – is lovely, through and through. But things get tricky if you’re after a sauce with a little chunk and heft to it. Those bits slipping away into nothing is how rhubarb sauce comes to be. Stop them from doing their thing, and all you have is a pot of mushy rhubarb. I’ve heard stories of rhubarb sauce yanked from the heat in time to preserve some semblance of bits, but by the time my sauce looks like the sauce I want it to be, all I ever have left are a few stubborn strands, at best.
Now, technically speaking, this sauce we’re discussing is no sauce at all. It’s actually roasted rhubarb. Unlike rhubarb sauce, roasted rhubarb is all about the bits. They remain more or less intact even as they stew in a shallow bath of water or wine and release their juices. I love roasted rhubarb, don’t get me wrong, but it can look awfully swimmy there in its puddle of thin cooking liquid. You can probably see where I’m going with this. What rhubarb sauce lacks in bits it makes up for in, well, sauce; roasted rhubarb, vice versa.
That’s where today’s recipe comes in. It’s a hybrid creature bred from rhubarb sauce and roasted rhubarb, a rare species that inherits the best from the both of them. It’s like a sturdy rhubarb sauce. Or maybe a saucy roasted rhubarb. Call it what you will. I call it roasted rhubarb compote.
Roasted rhubarb compote begins like many a roasted rhubarb, with sugared, thickly sliced stalks and a vanilla bean, splashed with citrus and tucked into an oven bound baking dish. You leave it alone to roast for a while, as you might expect. But about thirty minutes later, things get interesting. You pull the rhubarb from the oven mid-roast, and lift half of it into a sieve that you’ve placed over a small pot. Then, you return the untouched rhubarb to the oven and let it roast some more. When it has flushed a shade or two deeper and broken down considerably into a pulpy, almost-but-not-quite sauce, you strain it into your pot, too, and reduce the juices you’ve gathered into a brilliant pink syrup. Finally, you reassemble all of the pieces – the bits, the pulp, the syrup – in the baking dish. It’s funny business, to be sure, but it pays off.
A few Sundays ago, when I told you about that custard-filled corn bread, I threatened to bake it again the following weekend for some visiting friends, and to serve it with this rhubarb. That happened. We were so busy eating (custard-filled corn bread with roasted rhubarb compote is very, very good) and talking about hunter-gatherers’ gazelle hunting techniques (you know, typical breakfast conversation) that I forgot to take a photograph. I guess you’re going to have to trust me. Between the rhubarb photos here, and the corn bread photos there, you should be able to assemble the thing in your mind easily enough. And if your mind doesn’t feel like playing, I suppose you’ll just have to make up one batch each of corn bread and compote, and assemble the dish with your spoon, instead. Poor you.
Roasted Rhubarb Compote
In place of the orange zest and juice in this recipe, you might try ¼ to ½ a cup of fruity white wine. Brandi, whose rhubarb shortcake with mascarpone cream at Delancey last month made me gasp so loudly, I think I freaked out our server, makes a similar compote. She uses Grand Marnier instead of the citrus.
3 pounds rhubarb
Zest and juice from 1 orange (about ¼ c. of juice)
1 vanilla bean (when I’m without a bean, I substitute 1½ tsps. pure vanilla extract)
¾ c. sugar
3 Tbsps. butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the rhubarb into ½ inch – 1 inch thick pieces. If the stalks are particularly thick, I sometimes slice them in half vertically first. Slide the rhubarb into a deep baking dish, and toss with the sugar, orange juice, and zest. Slice open the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, add them and the split pod to the dish, and stir. Let sit for 30 minutes, until the sugar has more or less dissolved, then give it a gentle stir.
Thinly slice the butter and scatter the pats over the top of the dish. Roast the rhubarb for 25-30 minutes, until the bits go soft, but still retain their shape. How soft is up to you. I like my rhubarb bits pretty firm, just a notch or two down from an actual crunch. If you prefer softer bits, leave them to roast for an additional 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, set up a fine-mesh strainer over a small saucepan. (A colander will also work, in a pinch.) When your bits have reached the desired consistency, remove the dish from the oven, and lift half of the rhubarb into the strainer. Press lightly on the rhubarb with the back of a spoon to encourage the juices to drain in the pot. (Be gentle. You don’t want to mash the rhubarb.)
Return the baking dish to the oven, and continue roasting the other half of the rhubarb for 15 minutes. The rhubarb will begin to break down and get saucy. Strain the second half of the rhubarb into the saucepan, fish out the vanilla bean, and return all of the strained rhubarb to the baking dish.
Bring the rhubarb juice to a boil and, stirring frequently, reduce it to a light syrup. Pour the syrup back over the waiting rhubarb, and stir.
Serve warm, room temperature, or cold. Anything goes.