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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Crawling Toward Summer: Rhubarb Tarts

Creamy Rhubarb Cheese Tart

I noticed yesterday, while moving the hose to water my currant bushes, that our yard has been graced by not one, but two, turtle nests. When turtles lay their eggs, they scoop out the sand in a distinctive pattern, like a sort of snow angel in the sand. We didn't see the mothers at their work but from the size of the nests they are probably painted turtles, as common as snappers in this area. Both nests face precisely west, as if these absent mothers wanted to point their babies in the right direction, downhill toward the water for the 200 or so yards they will travel to the relative safety of the lake. Spring has arrived.

Chives in the Herb Garden    
I am doing a bit of traveling for work this year and each time I return after a week or so away, the changes are remarkable. The rhubarb, under the last stubborn pile of snow just 5 weeks ago, is full grown now and ready for picking. The black currants have finished flowering and have set fruit, a little late this year. I inspect them daily, willing them to ripen faster, anxious for the huge black fruits, a variety called 'Ben Sarek', as big as ripe blueberries. 

Hops on the trellis

Northern gardens don't have the luxury of long, sleepy starts and slow growth. They are a riot of activity, plants bursting through the soil in brilliant green and racing to full size in 60 or 90 or 120 days to beat, first the heat and then the frost, in their fervor to reproduce. The hops, climbing a trellis on the northwest corner of the property are putting on a full foot of growth per day; an astonishing feat for any plant. I look forward to the canopy of shade they create for outdoor reading all summer long and their beautiful cone-like green flowers; the fruit that beer brewers covet. 


The loons have returned to the lake now and are hatching their young, I hear them mournfully calling to each other across the water as I return to the house. Our neighbors Kevin and Steve have invited me to join them on their boat tonight in a 30 minute ride to Lost Lake Lodge for dinner. If we are lucky, we may see the mother birds with babies hitchhiking on their backs, protected from predators below the water's surface.

                  Maggie, photo-bombing the Rhubarb

I return to the rhubarb and cut most of the great red celery-looking stalks, leaving the largest and toughest stalks to regenerate the plant. My friend Stacy's words come to mind as their tart perfume envelops me. When she stopped by yesterday she remarked on the size of the bushes this year. “There is just something about rhubarb. I look forward to it every year but    somehow in that first bite I realize I have forgotten just how amazing it is.” Or perhaps rhubarb, starring in some sort of cosmic role, is reminding us just how amazing Spring really is? Pea shoots, the first greens snipped from the garden, peppermint spreading in the north garden like a weed, Siberian Iris ready to flower. I often race past them to the next project, forgetting why I planted them in the first place. Is there a lesson for me in those fantastic first flavors?  

spring flavors

Rhubarb is one of the few truly seasonal fruits left. We have managed to find a way to either chemically manipulate the storage of fruits or ship from distant lands fruit like pears and clementines, once rare and fragile, so that you can roll into a grocery store virtually anywhere in the country and find them year round. Yet rhubarb remains safe in the backyards of northern gardens, the domain of grandmothers and urban farmers alike. 

Pork Chops with Rhubarb Sauce on the grill

I cut a couple of stalks the other day as a tease and sautéed them in olive oil with yellow onion, a touch of garlic, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar. After adding a little water to thin it to a sauce, I spooned it over pork chops on the grill. It was lightly sweet and lightly tart with just the right touch of richness from the balsamic vinegar. My husband slathered the remaining sauce on bread, declaring it “too good to put in the frig”.

I am in no hurry for the height of summer this year, content to see the turtles hatch in their time and to spend a little more time in the herb and flower garden, taking in the mix of fragrances. I will play with some of the rhubarb stalks today but freeze most of the chopped stalks. Maybe I can hold on to that 'first bite of Spring' feeling a little longer that way.

Creamy Rhubarb Cheese Tart

1 ¼ c flour
2/3 c rolled oats
½ c brown sugar, packed
¼ tsp kosher salt
½ c cold butter

½ c lightly toasted walnuts, chopped, if desired.

Lightly grease the bottom of 6 individual tart pans, a large muffin pan or an 8x8” square pan.

                            a pastry blender                                                               

 Toss together the flour, oats, brown sugar and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or food processor until the mixture is crumbly and even textured.

Set aside ¾ – 1 cup of the mixture for topping. Add the chopped walnuts and set aside.
Press remaining crust mixture lightly into the bottom of the pan/pans. 

8oz cream cheese
4 oz mascarpone cheese
1 c sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp vanilla (I use Madagascar Bourbon brand)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
1 egg

Beat cheeses and sugar together to combine. Add remaining ingredients and beat until light and fluffy, scraping sides of bowl. 

Stir in 2 cups chopped rhubarb. Pour rhubarb cream cheese mixture over crust, sprinkle with reserved crust mixture and bake, 30-40 minutes until just set. Watch carefully. Cool to room temperature and chill 2 hours or freeze.

Recipe Notes:
  • Mascarpone cheese resembles cream cheese in texture but has a richer 'cheesier' flavor. If you cannot find mascarpone cheese you can substitute more cream cheese.
  • If the crust is pressed too tightly into the bottom of the pan it becomes very hard upon baking. Press it very lightly, just enough to hold it together.
  • Experiment with flavors and spices in this recipe. Increase, decrease or substitute lemon, spices, etc.
  • Try serving this while still a little frozen
  • Make a little sauce of fresh rhubarb or strawberries for the top – sliced fruit, honey or sugar to taste and a little water – cook until softened and use it as a sauce.
  • Want more creamy goodness? Place less crust mixture in the bottom of the pan (just enough to hold the bottom together) and barely sprinkle on the crumbly topping.
  • This can be baked as bars, individual tarts, etc. adjust the baking time accordingly. A 9” whole springform pan took just over an hour. Large muffin tins baked in about 35-40 minutes

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