Maybe you remember the Rhubarb-Rose Preserves I made the year before last? The recipe was inspired by a simple dessert in Margaret Rudkin’s Pepperidge Farm Cookbook. The beauty of Margaret’s dessert, and of my preserves, is that the rhubarb pieces stay intact instead of falling apart, because they’re cooked in the oven rather than on the stovetop.
With my first harvest of rhubarb this spring, I wanted to make a dessert like Margaret’s, but I wanted it red, not greenish. I have one rhubarb plant whose stalks are red both inside and out, but they weren’t ready to harvest yet. All my other rhubarb plants have green stalks with red-speckled skins. I couldn’t add roses to the mix, because none are blooming here yet, and strawberries don’t ripen until June. But I had plenty of strawberries from last year still in the freezer. So I made this lovely dessert:
Baked Rhubarb-Strawberry Compote
1¼ pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch lengths 1¼ pounds hulled strawberries 2/3 cup sugar
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar together in a baking dish. Bake the compote for an hour or longer, until the rhubarb is quite tender but still intact. There will be a lot of liquid in the dish, but the compote will thicken as it cools.
Serve the compote hot, cooled, or chilled, on its own or with pound cake, shortcake, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 cups compote
If the amount of sugar in this recipe seems high, keep in mind that rhubarb is very tart and not noticeably sweet at all.
If you like, add a cinnamon stick or ground ginger along with the other ingredients.
This year’s long, wet spring in western Oregon pleased my Alexandria strawberries, which I planted last year under the arching canes of an old climbing rose. The pale pink roses, white from a distance, are just beginning to bloom, and breathing in their fragrance while tasting the just-ripe berries made me dream of my jam pot.
Introduced by Park Seed in 1964, Alexandria is one of several seed-propagated varieties of Fragaria vesca, the European woodland or alpine strawberry. Although the fruits of Alexandria are bigger than those of other F. vesca cultivars, the longest of my berries measure less than an inch. The fruits ripen over a long period, so you have to plant a lot of starts if you want to collect enough berries for jam. For these reasons, many gardeners treat the Alexandria strawberry as an ornamental ground cover rather than a food source. But eating one of the perfectly ripe berries produces a shocking rush of flavor. However jaded you are from crunching gigantic green-picked strawberries from California, you will recognize Alexandria’s flavor as the essence of strawberry.
I collected a couple of handfuls of berries and then looked up at the rose bower. I hadn’t yet made rose preserves this year, and I’d missed the peak bloom of both the rugosas and the delicate pink wild roses. But I knew I could find roses enough to combine with the strawberries. The flowers overhead were too pale for a red jam, sadly. For better color and an equally delicious aroma, I collected some pink moss roses, pulling the blossoms away from each calyx with one hand and, with the other, clipping off each petal’s pale, slightly bitter base with the tiny scissors of my pocket knife.
Then I remembered the rhubarb stalks I’d harvested a few hours earlier. Rhubarb can be problematic for preservers and bakers because it is typically ambivalent about color. The varieties that are red inside and out tend to lack vigor, and all-green varieties are hard to find. Most rhubarb in home gardens has red or red-speckled skin but green flesh, and even red rhubarb skin may lose much of its color in the wrong growing conditions. The color problem is one reason that rhubarb is so often combined with strawberries. The happy marriage of flavors is another reason; the tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweet perfume of the strawberries. But full-scented roses marry well with rhubarb and strawberry both, so why not a ménage-a trois? This I had to try.
Rhubarb–Rose–Alpine Strawberry Jam
1 pound rhubarb, cut crosswise ½ inch thick 3 ounces Alexandria strawberries (about ¾ cup) 2 ½ ounces fragrant unsprayed rose petals (about 1½ cups, well packed) 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 cups sugar
In a bowl, gently mix the ingredients. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for about 8 hours, until the sugar has mostly dissolved.
Pour the mixture into a preserving pan, and set the pan over medium heat. Stir gently. When the sugar is completely dissolved, raise the heat to medium-high. Boil, stirring occasionally. The mixture will thicken in just a few minutes as the rhubarb fibers separate. When the mixture has reached a jam-like consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the jam into jars, and close them. You should have about 3 cups.
You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, for 5 minutes if you have sterilized them or 10 minutes if you haven’t.
To smell and to eat, this jam is fantastic. I have captured June in a jar.