By Ben Kaufmann
[Ben Kaufmann is the first mb.com visitor to submit a post we’re running. He’s an architect, who says “I no longer follow recipes and seldom consult cookbooks. This is not a point of pride for me but rather an indication of my laziness.” I’ve been saying that, or at least the latter part, for years. But it’s an indication not only of laziness but of skill and creativity, as I believe he demonstrates here. Visit Ben’s blog at (http://gutblog.com). As for my recent adventures with rhubarb, check out today’s Minimalist column.]
I was standing in line the other day to buy some ramps. Yes, that’s correct, I was waiting in the hot sun to spend three dollars on 2 oz. of wild baby leeks. People have gone a little crazy for ramps here in New York and I felt compelled to join in the fun. I worried they would sell out when a bicycle (actually a large tricycle) from a local restaurant arrived and loaded up several crates of them. They skipped right past the line.
But as I was making my purchase, (“No, no. I don’t need a bag. I brought my own.”) I spotted some rhubarb. The folks in line behind me were already shoving their items toward the rampmonger. So I panicked and set some rhubarb on the scale. Like ramps, rhubarb must be had locally, and must be very fresh. They also herald the full arrival of the spring growing season. And I think there was a time when people were just as crazy about rhubarb. Some of us still are.As a child rhubarb season produced a similar intensity to what I experienced at the market recently. An intensity not from the press of people, or of spending a lot of money, or then rushing home to cook and eat it. But the intensity of harvesting a huge patch that grew behind our house, and processing it all into pie, crisp, compote or jam. When all of that was done the rhubarb patch just became something I had to mow around for the rest of the summer.
Perhaps one reason for the excitement of ramps over rhubarb is that you don’t need to add sugar to ramps to eat them. They are more versatile. Use them in pasta, pizza, beef stew, or salad, or whatever. Indeed anything we eat from the allium genus of plants (onions, garlic, etc.) is so foundational to flavor that it is hard to imagine a happy life without them. Whereas rhubarb is a thrilling one-off. Life goes on once the season is over.So on my way home I was staring into my bag at the ramps and rhubarb together. I noticed they have the same colors: white, purple-red and green. Why not cook them together? After all, rhubarb has no natural sweetness. Why must we always make pie? So I made a pasta sauce. I chopped the ramp bulbs and sauteed them in olive oil. Then I chopped about five rhubarb stalks and added them to the pan. Instead of sugar to draw out the flavor I added salt here. Within minutes they had completely broken down into a tart, pulpy mass. I added some tomato paste and white wine and the ramp greens and I had a sauce. How was it? Well, very good actually. Thus inspired by this new direction for rhubarb I followed up with a chutney for some grilled pork chops. Here’s a rundown of the pictures above: First, the rhubarb is the star of the show here. We know that it very tart and that it will disintegrate quickly when we cook it. So we first need to build up some supporting but contrasting flavors. Thinly slice a red onion and saute in olive oil on high heat until it is soft but not yet changing color too much. Then add a few cloves of diced garlic, and some diced fresh green and red chiles. Saute until everything is soft and golden, but do not let the garlic turn brown. Turn down the heat a touch if you want to develop the flavors for an extra minute or two. Clean and trim 8-10 stalks of rhubarb. Chop coarsely and toss into the pan. Immediately add a fistful of coarse salt and half a fistful of sugar. Stir and saute. When it breaks down into a pulpy mass cook until much of the water is evaporated. Then add a squirt of tomato paste and a good splash of dry white wine to emulsify the chutney. Add grated pepper and taste and correct for salt. If you have brined the pork chops then the chutney need not be too salty. Remove from heat to a serving bowl. Grill two-inch thick pork chops on a hot fire for 6 minutes on each side. This will leave them faintly pink in the middle. Serve with chutney.