Rhubarb: candy-pink harbinger of spring, perpetual partner of strawberry in pies.
“I think it’s almost like a forgotten vegetable,” said Jonathan Heeter, sous-chef at Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Va. “Once you know how to use it, it packs a punch.”
Heeter might know the feeling. As a sous-chef, he takes a back seat to executive chef Austin Fausett, but Trummer’s — and every other notable restaurant in and around Washington — relies on the strength of its sous. That’s why The Washington Post invited three of them — Heeter, Krystal Cripe of the Red Hen in Bloomingdale and Faiz Ally of Del Campo downtown — to a competition to create the best rhubarb dish for spring. The catch? It had to be savory.
“Rhubarb is definitely a difficult ingredient to work with,” Cripe said. “People are used to seeing it in sweet desserts, with ... something sweet to cut that tartness. It was tough to get that balance in savory.”
The three were given limitations: The dish could incorporate just six ingredients (not including salt and pepper). And when the sous-chefs gathered at cooking school CulinAerie, they had just one hour to prepare their dish.
Cripe went for simplicity, using strawberry, rhubarb and cucumber in a bright, velvety-smooth chilled soup topped with peppery ricotta. But for Ally and Heeter, it was a foie gras face-off, with both chefs smartly using rhubarb to cut the richness of the duck liver. Heeter also incorporated duck breast, which he paired with rhubarb stripes and preserve, and a duck-fat-coated wild rice. Alas, he had intended to temper rhubarb’s sourness with cherries, if it weren’t for a mix-up: He accidentally grabbed an opaque container of cranberries.
Ally, meanwhile, busied himself with two applications of the rhubarb: diced and reduced with balsamic vinegar, and grilled in thin strips (which gave them zebra-like stripes) for a garnish.
“I wanted to take the traditional aspect of the way you cook rhubarb, but apply it to what we do at Del Campo with the grilling, the charring, the smoking,” Ally said.
True to his origins, he also grilled and smoked his foie gras, which he topped with grilled pea tendrils and a burnt-onion jam. Post food writers and editors who judged the dishes (along with CulinAerie’s Susan Holt) picked Ally’s as the winner, praising its creativity and boldness, and stunning plating. In a tight vote, Heeter’s dish came in second and Cripe’s third.
“They’re very bold and assertive flavors,” said Ally, who had fond memories of strawberry-rhubarb pie from a childhood in the South. “I had a lobe of foie gras, and I thought, let me make something really rich and decadent.”