It’s the beginning of spring when vibrant stalks of rhubarb poke their heads out of the ground and wait for the sun to shine upon them. The rays brush-stroke them to brilliant pink or ruby red, all ready to show up at grocers and local farmers markets.
When I was a kid, there was a neighbor’s garden right up against the playground’s cyclone fence, with openings just big enough for small hands. We dared each other to reach through the fence, pull up a super-tart, underripe rhubarb stalk, and take a big bite. Ooooew! It is still one of my favorite prankster jokes to play on the non-rhubarb-savvy: “Hey, have you tried this cool new red celery? Isn’t it beautiful—here, try a bite!” Hee-hee.
Rhubarb stalks range in color from pale green, sometimes speckled with pink, to pink and bright red—color depends on the variety and is not a guide to quality or degree of sourness. Hot-house rhubarb is the first to come into the grocery stores, but it doesn’t have as big a flavor as our local commercial crop or that grown in backyards. The one thing to be cautious of is to be sure that only the stems are eaten and that any leaf is trimmed off as the leaf portion is poisonous.
Rhubarb has lent its tangy flavor to pies and applesauce over the years and is most commonly used in desserts. Strawberry–rhubarb is a classic flavor combo, especially baked up in pies. But I decided to put a little twist on that all-time Northwest dessert favorite—in Strawberry Rhubarb Filo Flower Cheesecakes. The filo flowers are easy to make and less intimidating for some than pie dough, and the ultra-thin leaves of filo dough are interesting to try working with if you never have. Lightly brushed with butter and sprinkled with finely minced walnuts and cinnamon sugar, the delicate petals of filo are filled with a creamy cheesecake batter, baked, and then topped with pleasingly tart compote of rhubarb and strawberries. Individual and elegant. This is a perfect recipe to print out for that Mother’s Day dinner you plan on whipping up this year!
On the savory side of things (rhubarb is not just for sweets!), I created a recipe for Pan-Roasted Halibut with Rhubarb Ginger Vinaigrette. The rhubarb is cooked till tender with a little sugar, fresh ginger and white wine vinegar then finished off with some cilantro and a touch of sambal; everything is whisked together with a splash of oil. This bright vinaigrette is a lovely foil for delicate Northwest halibut. Serve it with fresh asparagus and steamed basmati rice for a simple, spring dinner.
Pan Roasted Halibut with Rhubarb-Ginger Vinaigrette
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup chopped fresh rhubarb
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup white wine or raspberry vinegar
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup vegetable or light olive oil
4 6- to 7-ounce boneless, skinless Pacific halibut fillet portions (ask for center cut)
kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish
To make the vinaigrette: In a medium saucepan, combine rhubarb, sugar, vinegar, ginger and garlic, and cook over medium heat until rhubarb is tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
In a medium bowl, whisk together mustard, salt, sambal, and chopped cilantro. Whisk in the cooled rhubarb mixture. Then gradually whisk in the oil, emulsifying the vinaigrette. Set aside at room temperature while you are preparing the fish.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Season halibut on both sides with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste.
In a large, ovenproof, nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over moderately high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add halibut and sear until golden on the first side, about 1 – 2 minutes. Turn fillets, and cook about 1 – 2 minutes more, until golden on second side.
Place skillet in oven and finish cooking fish until just done (no longer translucent in center), about 4 – 8 minutes, depending on thickness of fish.
Place halibut portions on serving plates, top with the vinaigrette and garnish with cilantro sprigs.
©2009 by Kathy Casey Food Studios®
Strawberry Rhubarb Filo Flower Cheesecakes
Makes 8 servings
2 cups 1 1/2-inch-diced fresh rhubarb (about 1/2 to 3/4 pound)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced strawberries
12 ounces cream cheese
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/3 cup finely minced walnuts
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter
8 (12-inch x 17-inch) sheets Apollo filo dough (If frozen, allow 5 hours at room temperature or 24 hours in the refrigerator to thaw.)
To make the rhubarb compote: In a 10-inch sauté pan combine the rhubarb and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and let cook about 10 minutes or until rhubarb is tender, occasionally stirring gently. Let cool to room temperature, then fold in strawberries. Refrigerate till needed. (This can be made up to 2 days in advance.)
To make cheesecake batter: Using a mixer, cream the cream cheese, sugar, and flour in a medium bowl. Then blend in the eggs, vanilla, sour cream and lemon zest. Mix until creamy and smooth. Set aside.
To assemble and bake filo flowers: Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a small bowl, mix together the walnuts, sugar and cinnamon, and set aside. Melt the butter and set aside but keep warm. Spray 8 muffin tin compartments generously with cooking spray and set aside.
If you’ve never worked with filo dough, read the instructions on the box to acquaint yourself with it. Whenever working with filo, work quickly and cover any pieces you’re not working on at that moment with a piece of plastic wrap and then a damp towel.
Stack the filo sheets on a clean dry surface. With a sharp knife make 2 cuts crosswise and 1 lengthwise to make 6 squares out of each sheet. (You should have a total of 48 squares.) Stack the squares up to make one pile and cover as described above.
Make the filo flowers one at a time. Place one filo square on a clean work surface. Using a pastry brush, brush filo very lightly with the melted butter. Sprinkle with 1 level teaspoon of walnut-sugar mixture. Place another filo square on top. Butter and sprinkle as before. Repeat this method, stacking filo, buttering and sugaring, until you have 6 layers. Butter the top of the 6th layer, but do not sprinkle with sugar mixture.
As soon as you finish a filo stack, place it into the pan-sprayed muffin tin. Shape filo, pressing in the sides to form a cup-like liner, then puff out the top like flower petals. Repeat to make eight filo flowers.
Carefully fill each filo flower with 1/4 cup of the cheesecake batter. Place on center rack in preheated oven. Bake 20 to 22 minutes until cheesecake is puffy and filo is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool in pan 10 minutes. Then carefully lift out each one to a platter. Let cool until barely warm, then top cheesecake with rhubarb compote, evenly dividing it among the pastries. Serve barely warm or, if refrigerated, bring to room temperature just before serving. ©2009 by Kathy Casey Food Studios®