Ask a dozen people about rhubarb, and some will tell you stories of a childhood summer day spent dipping it into cups of sugar. The rest will give you a baffled look and ask, “Rhubarb?”
The vegetable with poisonous leaves and edible stalks is either deeply familiar or utterly foreign. Either way, it deserves a little love.
Yes, raw rhubarb is eye-squintingly tart. But simmer it with strawberries and sugar for a summery compote to spoon over ice cream. Or capitalize on its crunch and quick-pickle batons with rice wine vinegar, salt, sugar and a slice of jalapeño. In three days, such pickles are ready to serve alongside pork or duck.
Rhubarb dances between sweet and savory without a stumble, which is why it makes such a clever base for chutney. As unfamiliar as rhubarb might be, chutney is under-appreciated as a condiment. Sure, it arrives with a samosa or is offered as a complement to Indian food’s complex flavors, but chutney is so much more. Slather it across that day-in, day-out turkey sandwich for a little zing in the lunch bag. Serve it as a tangy foil to softly scrambled eggs or as an easy grilling sauce brushed on pork or chicken. Chutney contains both vinegar and sugar, making it more tart than a jam and sweeter than a pickle.
To ensure a pleasantly pink outcome, use the reddest rhubarb stalks for the accompanying recipe. (Pale green rhubarb cooks down to a dull color.) Orange bits of mango offer texture and a pop of floral and tropical flavor. They provide a heavenly counterpoint to the rhubarb, but when fresh mango is not available, you can use dried mango, dried pineapple or golden raisins instead.
Adapt it to your own taste. Most often, chutneys are intensely spiced. Keep the proportions of sugar, vinegar, fruit, onion and garlic consistent, but nudge the spice. Chutney is zesty from mustard seed (yellow seed is mild, brown seed is warming and black is downright assertive), but it’s the chili pepper that brings heat to the party. If spice and heat are welcome in your household, add the serrano with abandon; otherwise, be judicious.
Cook at an active, murmuring boil, and stir relentlessly to avoid sticking and scorching. The final product should be as thick and substantial as applesauce. In fact, substitute a spoonful of rhubarb mango chutney the next time you reach for applesauce, and welcome this sensational, shape-shifting condiment into your repertoire.
Canning Class appears twice a month. Barrow’s first cookbook, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton), will be published in the fall. She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.
More from Food: