I prefer to eat most spring and summer fruits raw...with maybe just a touch of sugar. Even when made into a compote, stone fruits and berries only require a bit of sugar syrup and possibly some flavoring in the form of an herb, a spice, some citrus zest or a liqueur. Rhubarb—although edible in its raw form—is much better when cooked. Cooking softens its texture, making it more appropriate for a compote and more compatible with other, softer fruits that might be in the compote. Cooking also happens to enhance its rosy color—even if the rhubarb you are using isn't one of the deep red varieties.
You can of course cook rhubarb by chopping it up, placing it in a saucepan with some sugar and water and then simmering it until it is tender. It tastes just fine this way, but it tends to fall apart into a rough purée—often one that isn't so attractive. There are many tricks that cooks and chefs have come up with to try and preserve distinct pieces of rhubarb—leaving it in long pieces, roasting it, removing it from its sugar syrup before it is fully tender, etc. All of these methods work to one degree or another (depending on the rhubarb) and are useful for a variety of purposes.
For my compote, I use a method that is sometimes employed in the process of making preserves. Frequently a recipe for fruit preserves will direct you to combine the cut fruit and the sugar the night before you plan on making the preserves. One of the effects of this process is that the fruit becomes firmer and will be less likely to immediately reduce to a purée as it cooks. Also, because the sugar draws water out of the fruit, sugaring the fruit ahead will allow you to cook the fruit without adding any extra liquid—the fruit juices and sugar form a natural sugar syrup poaching medium. Since the cooking process doesn't have to be prolonged in order to boil off added water, the fruit can be cooked minimally—in the case of my rhubarb compote, just to the point of tenderness and no further.
|The rhubarb and sugar after sitting overnight|
There are a couple of other tricks that in my experience will further aid in maintaining the integrity of the rhubarb. First, even if the stalks of rhubarb are very fat, don't split them lengthwise...simply cut the rhubarb across the grain into slices. Slices that are entirely surrounded by the rhubarb "skin" are more likely to stay intact as they cook. The other thing that will help is to refrain from stirring the rhubarb too much as it cooks and cools. The rhubarb should be cooked in a pan that is wide enough to hold it in a snug single layer—or double layer at most.
|simmering in its own juices in a single layer...|
As it simmers, simply swirl the pan occasionally to redistribute the syrup and make up for possible hot spots in the pan. If absolutely necessary, use a heatproof rubber spatula to gently move the rhubarb around the pan as it cooks.
A rhubarb compote that is made using this method will be thicker than a traditionally stewed rhubarb and will contain more recognizable pieces of rhubarb. It does not produce a pristine compote of intact chunks of rhubarb floating in a clear pink syrup (there are other methods for achieving that), but I think the resulting mix of chunks and purée is rather charming and perfectly acceptable for a compote.
|The finished compote (after chilling)|
To prepare the strawberry-rhubarb compote, simply pour the finished rhubarb over a bowl of strawberries that have been cut into pieces that are the same size as the slices of rhubarb.
Doing this seems to heat the strawberries just enough, so that their flavor mingles nicely with the flavor of the rhubarb, without really cooking them. Strawberries also tend to turn into a purée when cooked. And since they are already pleasantly soft, cooking them isn't necessary.
|The warm rhubarb poured over the strawberries...|
|After a quick fold, just to distribute the rhubarb. |
Don't stir again until chilled....stirring too much will tear up the fruit.
I find this compote to be extremely versatile. For my Mothers' Day brunch class I served it with some delicious ricotta fritters (flavored with orange zest instead of lemon—orange is wonderful with both rhubarb and strawberry). It would be equally good with French toast or pancakes. I love it for breakfast, stirred into plain yogurt (with maybe some added slices of banana if I am especially hungry). It is a great thing to have on hand to serve with a plain cake...like a pound cake...or with ice cream. But I think my favorite way to eat it is with both cake and ice cream in a strawberry-rhubarb shortcake.
2 c. rhubarb, sliced cross-wise into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 lb. trimmed weight)
1/2 c. Sugar
1/2 lb. strawberries, hulled and cut into pieces the same size as the rhubarb (about 1 1/2 cups)
Combine the rhubarb and the sugar in small bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to make the compote, place the strawberries in a medium-sized glass or ceramic bowl and set aside.
Remove the rhubarb from the refrigerator. The rhubarb will have given up quite a bit of liquid and most of the sugar will have dissolved. Stir the contents of the bowl to help dissolve any of the remaining undissolved sugar. Place a strainer over a wide saucepan. Scrape the macerated rhubarb into the strainer. Let sit for a minute or two to allow all of the syrup to drain into the saucepan. Set the rhubarb aside for the moment.
Bring the syrup to a boil. Add the rhubarb and simmer, regulating the heat as necessary to maintain a simmer and swirling the pan occasionally, until the rhubarb is just tender—about 5 minutes. Some of the rhubarb will be beginning to fall apart, but much of it should hold its shape. Scrape the rhubarb into the bowl with the strawberries and gently fold together. Cool to room temperature without disturbing. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 2 cups compote.
Note: If you don't have time to allow the rhubarb to sit with the sugar overnight, toss the rhubarb with the sugar and add a tablespoon or two of water. Let the rhubarb sit at room temperature—stirring occasionally—until the rhubarb has given up some of its liquid and most of the sugar has dissolved. Proceed as directed. The rhubarb will not hold its shape quite as well using this method, but the compote will still taste very good.
|With plain yogurt...|