Monday, August 04, 2008


Crimson Dishes - Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler and Charkhlis Pkhali

Against a backdrop of darkening, shifting clouds and a sky of various shades of grey, the kitchen and dining room are aglow with the oven's soaring temperature, candles on the dining table and warm-hued meals (caramelised root vegetables, burnished poultry and red wine-based braises). One can, however, become disenchanted with contorni of roasted potatoes, kumara and parsnip or with honey-coloured puddings of lemons, pears and apples. Just when it cannot possibly get any colder (here, anyway), I switch out golden vegetables and fruit for a shocking display of intense crimson.

Rhubarb appears to have reached a whole new level of appreciation of late. What has always been a winter and spring feature in my household is now a trendy dessert offering. Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable. Its roots and almost lime green leaves are toxic, and its stalk, practically the colour of a cardinal's robe, is so tart that it has to be counteracted with obscene amounts of sugar. (To my knowledge, it is the only vegetable treated wholly as a fruit.) Stewed (best when cooked through but not mushy), vibrant rhubarb is a delightful antidote when the temperature drops.

I used to eat lemons right off the tree as a child, so I guess it is fair to say that I have a proclivity towards sour and tart food. Accordingly, I tend not to add but the least amount of raw/brown sugar to take the sourest edge out of rhubarb. Of course you can add more sugar. That said, I suggest that you be prudent because to oversweeten rhurbarb defies its purpose, and you might as well be having something else instead - add what I suggest here, then add more towards the end of the cooking period after you have sampled the rhubarb.

This particular cobbler is lifted from Jerry Traunfeld's greatly inspiring cookery book, The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor. I tried to find angelica for a variation, but I was not so lucky at the weekend. I have, however, tweaked the recipe: lemon zest to complement the rhubarb; rose water to perfume the rhubarb along with mint; and ground almonds in the biscuit mixture to round out the sweetness of the topping with full-flavoured nuttiness (pulverised walnuts and pistachios also work well). When slicing rhubarb wands, peel off any stringy bits that begin to come away because they only amplify the fibrous quality of rhubarb (its principal drawback, to my mind).

Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler
(Adapted from Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor)

For the Rhubarb:

750g/1.5lbs rhubarb stalks
2/3 cup raw/brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped English mint
1 tablespoon rose water
zest of one small lemon
14g/1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For the Biscuits:

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup ground almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons white/granulated sugar, divided use
28g/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

1) Preheat oven to 200 C/400 F.
2) Wash rhubarb stalks, then chop off the ends (removing any dry ends).
3) Slice rhubarb cross-wise into 1.25cm/ 1.2" pieces.
4) Put into a baking dish (approximately 22cm/9" x 33cm/13") and mix in the sugar, mint, rose water and lemon zest.
5) Dot surface with the butter and bake for 15 minutes (until it softens and releases bubbling, crimson juices).

Prepare the biscuits as the rhubarb is baking.

1) Put flour, ground almonds, baking powder, salt and 3 tablespoons of the sugar into a bowl. Mix together.
2) Dice the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your finger tips, as you would when making pastry.
3) When the flour and butter mixture slips through the fingers like granules of rice, pour in the cream.
4) Mix cream with hands until clumps of dough are formed.
5) Put the dough on baking/parchment paper.
6) Divide dough into eight equal pieces and flatten each into a disk 5cm/2" in diameter.
7) Arrange on top of the rhubarb and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
8) Bake until the biscuits have browned all over, 15-20 minutes.

In all, this is a boon of a dessert - filling yet light. The rhubarb zings across the palate in a complex melange with the rose water, mint and lemon zest, partnered with the pronounced almond tones in the biscuit. Of course, it does not have to end here - a cobbler can be made with practically any fruit, but the choice to use rhubarb elevates the simple cobbler, making it an interesting dessert.

You might want to gild the lily and pair it with ice cream (I poured over some cream). Strawberry ice cream would make a great option, for strawberry is a traditional bedmate (remember, though, I made this in winter, so there weren't any fresh strawberries around for me to make ice cream). Ginger is another interesting partner, so I also recommend that you have a look at this Tamasin Day-Lewis recipe for Stem Ginger and Spice Ice Cream.

While the above recipe is a great way to end the night, a fabulous way to start a dinner party is with dips and pâtés or elements from zakuski, a Georgian tradition of small plates of contrasting temperatures and textures. While I've read a lot about zakuski, I have never hosted such a dining event (probably because I do not have the stomach to wash down shots of vodka between mouthfuls of food). I do, however, take a leaf out of Georgian housewives' books and look to zakuski for inspiration when creating a cocktail-hour menu.

Georgians love to combine coriander/cilantro and walnuts (such as in satsivi, the national sauce). This is an unusual yet intriguing interplay of flavours, realised perfectly in Charkhlis Pkhali - a beetroot, walnut and coriander pureé.

Charkhlis Pkhali
(from Diana Henry's Roast Figs, Sugar Snow)

700g/1.5lbs beetroot (washed and leaves chopped off 4cm/1.5" from base)
150g/6oz walnut pieces
1 teaspoon sea salt
5 cloves garlic, crushed
5 tablespoons coriander/cilantro, finely chopped
5 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil

1) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
2) Wrap beets in aluminium foil, place them on a baking tray and bake until tender, approximately 1 1/2 hours.
3) In the meantime, grind together the walnuts, salt and garlic.
4) Add the herbs and continue grinding until a paste is formed.
5) When you can handle the beets, peel quickly and grate the flesh of the crimson orbs into a bowl (and wash your hands immediately afterwards to remove the stain).
6) Mix in the walnut paste and red wine vinegar, olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

What is great about this dish is that it can be made in advance and kept in the fridge. Bring it to room temperature before serving with pita chips (pita bread cut into triangles, toasted in the oven with olive oil, Hawaiian red clay salt and pepper) or toasted herb bread. You can gild this lily, too, by sprinkling pomegranate seeds once the dish has come to room temperature.

Charkhlis Pkhali and Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler are celebratory dishes. Vibrant in both colour and flavours, these crimson dishes fire up conversation around the dining table, allowing one to forget that it is dark and cold out.

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Wonderful colours (those rhubarb stalks!!). I love Georgian recipes - there are quite a few Georgian restaurants in Tallinn, so I'm lucky enough to get to eat there every now and then. I must admit that this beetroot dish is new to me - very intrigued!!
I love cobbler. Mmmm. I also love rhubarb but I've only ever had it stewed. The combination of rhubarb and mint sounds interesting ....
Pille ~ It is so lovely to see your comment. I would love to hear more about your experiences with Georgian food. I have read quite a bit about it, though never from one encyclopaedic account (not that I place any primacy in such documents). All guests especially enjoyed the complementary earthiness of the beetroot and walnuts, while making special mention of the contrast ingredients between these same ingredients.

Anthony ~ The addition of mint is to complement the high notes of the rhubarb. The tangy edge is not wholly removed, for I like it, but this can be overridden with more sugar. The colours are so much richer "in real life".
Where to begin, where to begin...rosewater and mint? Spectacular. Adore the idea of angelica, too, but very hard to find here as well (ordered candied stalks recently - particularly stringy and coarse - good for mince only).

Bless you, Shaun, for reminding me (again) to get cracking on the feasts of Eurasia. Much to explore, so little time.
Susan, lovie ~ The combined aroma produced by rosewater and mint is simply intoxicating. Rosewater always adds an enchanting element to a dish or cocktail.

Sorry to hear about the angelica. It is rumoured to be easy to find here, but I suspect it is easy to find wild as opposed to at the market.

Like you, I also feel that there is too much to cook in such little time. I certainly hope that it is not before long that we can cross some experiments off our lists together in a shared kitchen space.





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