Apparently, having a bowlful of my unseasonal brown-food cooking last week was already half of what it took to get me over my lingering winter blues. Today, I am happy to announce: I am R to the EADY for spring! I’m open. I want it. All I needed was a bit of starting aid. And boy – did I get some yesterday morning. When I wandered around the market, my brain got SMACKED by the gorgeously shocking pink color of the first, young, and oh so beau-shi-ful rhubarb stalks. Springtime is ON.
Thanks to the very warm winter in Germany this year, all the typical local spring produce made a jump start: There is the first white German asparagus all over the market and people carry lashings of it home in white plastic bags filled to the bursting point. Also, I saw the first bear’s garlic and woodruff yesterday. In German, woodruff translated to ‘Waldmeister’, but also ‘Maikraut‘ – may weed. A real early starter. But what particularly caught my eye were the first rhubarb stalks on some of the stalls. Rhubarb is the kind of fruit (respectively: vegetable, since that’s what it is botanically) that, although very trendy these days and appropriated by everything hipster, says ‘old fashioned’ to me in a very endearing way. Yet again, this has to do with childhood memories.
When I was little, we moved home a l-o-t. Sometimes we had to, but sometimes my mom just was ready for a change and a new start (she made sure we didn’t know the difference). One of the numerous homes we lived in had a very pretty garden with a cherry tree and black and red currant bushes in the backyard, a quince tree in front, and a vast rhubarb plant, too. It was a great place to live out the fantasy stories of hidden kingdoms and bewitched trees that occupied my mind in those days. The rhubarb we had was of the green variety and as a kid, I found the large leaves and the act of tearing the stalks, which were half my height, out of the ground pretty fascinating. We would sit in front of the house and peel the rhubarb, whereby I had to extend my arm to full length to pull away the translucent freckled ribbons from the stalks. Afterwards, my mom typically cooked compote, to which she always added tapioca. I loved the gelatinous pearls in-between the tangy green threads. To go with it, there was always vanilla pudding, made from a packet, but made with love. Making rhubarb pie was more my sister’s business. She was and is a huge fan of rhubarb pies with really sweet meringue toppings, and so am I.
Originally, I had in mind doing a rhubarb pie for this weekend, but as though my mind was still shedding my wintery mood, the idea of making short pastry bored me, and the thought of hiding the gorgeous fuchsia color of the stalks away under a blanket of meringue didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to EAT that color. Inject it into my system. But: I still wanted meringue – just – lighter, somehow different – … – sexier, if that makes any sense.
I decided to braise the unpeeled stalks in the oven in their own juices until tender, and just enhance their own flavor with some cardamom and citrus zest. To preserve their dashing pinkness, I left the skin on: the skin on such young rhubarb, as the equally young and apple-cheeked handsome marketer explained to me, doesn’t have to be peeled off. To contrast the tender softness of the stewed rhubarb, I went for sharp-edged crunchy shards of meringue: I sprinkled some crystallized mint in the egg whites and baked it in a thin layer, which I shattered into shards afterwards. Once you have got these two ingredients together, it is just a matter of channeling your inner Ikebana queen and artfully scattering everything on a plate with a few dollops of vanilla sour cream. If you want to, you can just as easily fork the rhubarb into a pint of whipped cream and scatter in the shards, and turn this into a rhubarb-Eton-mess kind of thing.
Pink Rhubarb with Mint Meringue Shards
Active time: rhubarb 5 minutes, meringue 10 minutes, baking: rhubarb 15 minutes, meringue 60 minutes
Ingredients (for dessert for 4)
5 stalks young pink rhubarb
3 tbsp castor sugar
4 pods green cardamom
1 untreated orange, zest and juice
zest of half an untreated lemon
2 egg whites (eggs size M)
about 150 g castor sugar
This yields more than you actually need for 4 portions, but 2 egg whites is the minimal amount I start making meringue with. The finished meringue keeps easily for two weeks in airtight containers, and you can use it crumbled over ice cream, in a trifle, over any other fruit compote – or just eat them as they are.
100 g sour cream
1 If needed (when the rhubarb is not super tender) peel the rhubarb. Cut the stalks into sticks of about 8 cm in length. Crack the cardamom pods open and crush the black seeds with a mortar and pestle or the blade of a knife. Preheat the oven to 190 °C (fan-forced). Mix sugar, cardamom, half the orange zest and the lemon zest and sprinkle over the rhubarb in an ovenproof dish. Add juice of half an orange. Cover with aluminum foil and bake on the middle shelf for about 20 minutes (you can check if it’s ready by piercing the stalks with a knife, it should go in and out easily).
2 Meanwhile, beat the egg whites in a completely fat-free bowl until frothy, then gradually add the sugar and keep whisking until the egg whites form soft peaks and are glossy (this takes about 7 minutes). Sprinkle with crystallized mint and mix again, then spread evenly on a baking tray lined with baking parchment, about 0,5 cm thick. When the rhubarb is ready, leave the oven door open for a few seconds to release the fierce heat, turn down the heat to 90 °C and bake the meringue until firm (about 1 hour should do). Let it cool on a rack and break into shards.
3 For serving, sweeten some sour cream to your liking with vanilla sugar. Arrange rhubarb, dollops of sour cream and meringue shards abstractly, savor the view, and dive in.