Ok, so I know I should tell you all about rhubarb, and how it is in season now, and how its tartness is the perfect antidote for what seemed like a long winter. And I will tell you. But first, I have to say one thing: this recipe is perfect for eating at a meeting of The Finer Things Club. If you don't know what I am talking about, then you undoubtedly have never watched The Office and have never longed to be part of the group honoring all things finer. Still don't know what I mean? I think Andy says it best: "The Finer Things Club is the most exclusive club in this office. Naturally, it's where I need to be. The party planning committee is my back up, and Kevin's band is my safety." At Dunder Mifflin, if you love food and you love culture (and need a break-room respite from Michael Scott), then you belong in The Finer Things Club. Unfortunately, you would be in the same boat as poor Andy Bernard since they don't allow new members. But just maybe... if you brought them this chutney, some quality Brie, and fresh-baked french bread... they might reconsider.
Alright. I have gotten my Office reference out of my system, so lets be serious and talk about rhubarb. This plant is actually related to the sorrel and is in the buckwheat family, which technically makes it an herb although it is almost always cooked as a fruit. Rhubarb has a natural growing season from around March to October, but many people seem to think that the winter crop from December to March has a better looking pink color, more tender stalks, and a less tart taste. During the winter, rhubarb plants are "forced," which means that they are transplanted to dark, hot environments to speed up their growth. (For home gardeners, this can be accomplished by covering the plant with a forcing pot or a wastebasket.) Either naturally grown or forced, rhubarb is at its peak right now so hurry to the market and get some.
If you aren't quick, all the other rhubarb-lovers will rush to the store before you and snatch up all these beautiful crimson stalks! Well, ok, it might not be that drastic, but you should definitely buy some before it is past its peak. I got mine to make this recipe at the end of last month, and it was delish. And definitely buy it even if you don't intend to use it immediately, because it will keep in your fridge for about a week, and you can also chop it up and freeze it for later use. But don't eat the leaves: they are toxic!
This recipe was a perfect way to use the rhubarb that I bought. At its heart, it really represents the only way to eat rhubarb: by tempering its acidity and tart flavor with sugar. Most commonly, rhubarb is mixed with fruits in spring pies (think back, can't you remember your grandmother making a strawberry rhubarb pie when you were young?), but a chutney or compote like this recipe is also a great way to try some different flavors. Come to think of it, lately I have also seen some salads that incorporate raw rhubarb, though I really can't imagine why... If you are curious about the taste, chew up a slice of raw rhubarb. I think you will agree that it needs a little sugar mama to give it a makeover and bring out its inner beauty.
And speaking of good looks, my eyes really got a treat while I was making this chutney. The bright rhubarb was just the start; there were golden raisins, the ruby cherries, and the shiny green limes. Then to complement these colors, the chutney also incorporated interesting flavors from toasted aniseeds and mustard seeds. I think the aniseeds especially gave it a really unique flavor that came through right underneath the sugar.
When all was said and done, the bright colors mellowed out to a more muted palette that was studded with tiny golden and brown seeds.
I originally made this on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I enjoyed the chutney with cheese and bread and the day felt just about perfect. As you can see, I really enjoyed the chutney (how did I miss that little bite!), although I restrained myself so that I could share with some friends. I put the remaining chutney in a cute little jar and took it into work the next week.
If you make this recipe (and if you don't eat it all right away), you can keep it in the fridge for about a week. Then you can pull it out when you have a craving for something a lot sweet and a little salty, and indulge yourself. Or, in reverence for the original Finer Things Club, you can take it into your workplace and share it with some of your co-workers. But not all of them. Only a select few that you think can really appreciate it.
Cherry Rhubarb Chutney
Adapted from Bon Appetit, February 2007
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup brandy
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
2 cups chopped rhubarb (about 1/2 inch slices)
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Crusty french bread and brie for serving
In a small saucepan, combine the raisins, cherries and brandy, and set aside to macerate for 30 minutes (stir once or twice during this time). While the fruit is macerating toast the mustard seeds and aniseed in a small skillet for about two minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, add the toasted seeds to the fruit mixture and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed, about 5-10 minutes. Add the chopped rhubarb, sugar, and lime juice, and simmer again until the additional liquid is absorbed and rhubarb is tender. If the rhubarb is cooked and liquid still remains in the pan, you might need to pour off some excess. Taste and season with salt and pepper if desired (I did not); transfer to a bowl, cover, and chill.
Serve with sliced french bread and brie, or if you prefer, as an accompaniment to cooked meat such as lamb, duck or venison.