6.02.2010

of saving and eating



Have you had enough rhubarb yet?

You know, it occurs to me that seasonal, locavore-type eating is uniquely situated for having that type of question asked about its habits. We eat broccoli, yogurt, cheese, bananas, and carrots year-round, for better or worse. We rarely binge on them, and never to the point that we feel, "There. I've eaten my share for the year." Yet take a regional specialty like rhubarb, or strawberries, sweet corn, blackberries, whatever - you pick your weakness - and during the brief window of their availability in our markets, fields, yard, etc. we feel a strong responsibility to eat as much as possible, while also making sure that we really enjoy every bite. What we don't eat we freeze, can, or heave at our friends and neighbors, desperate to make sure not an ounce goes to waste.

This tendency towards such excessive consumption must surely be hardwired into us, for how else can you explain such irrational behavior as single-handedly eating an entire quart of strawberries in one sitting? (Which I, personally, have done. And do not recommend at all. The case for moderation was made in a very real way after I got quite ill from all those berries.) To riff on Michael Pollan (and Paul Rozin before him), it's the Locavore's Dilemma: how do we find a balance to our eating of in-season-for-moments-in-time foods? Why will I continue to buy rhubarb every time I see it at the market, knowing full well that there are still two bags of the plant, all nicely cut up into uniform pieces, in the freezer from last year? Why must I hoard these foods that I know I'll get to have again next year? (Particularly since I rarely think to pull any out of the freezer to eat when it's not in season. So why the heck am I saving it?)

Josh will tell you that it's because I'm just one of those people who likes to keep things, however neat and organized I may manage to be about it. He's partly right, I'm sure, and it's no doubt emphasized by the strong sense of Yankee thrift handed down to me from my grandfather. (You just never know when you might need something! Better to be prepared!) But I'd like to think it's also emblematic of a greater human condition, one which is shared by more people than just those in my immediate gene pool. Something along the lines of instinctively noticing these fleeting moments of produce perfection, and wanting to savor them to their fullest, while also extending our access to their unique, inimitable flavor. Which, of course, taken out of the locavore context, is what's gotten us into so much trouble, what with the industrialization and globalization of our food supply. But at my house, it just means that I get into trouble for stashing too much fruit in the freezer. Which, really, isn't that much trouble at all.

So, back to the rhubarb, which is still in constant supply around here. I had actually made a silent pledge to refrain from buying any more, but that was before I read Helene's post about her grandmother's rhubarb custard tarts, and got that idea lodged in my brain. But of course, I couldn't just make her recipe. You see, I've also been coming back to an idea I only came across for the first time several months ago: yogurt custard. Oddly, I'd never heard of yogurt custard before. Which makes no sense, since it seems like the easiest thing in the world. Is it a British/European thing that never made it across the pond? Can someone fill me in? But I love yogurt, and we eat tons of it (honestly, it seems like all Wylie ever talks about!), so finding a way to incorporate it into dessert was a no-brainer. I'd also been wanting to come up with a basic gluten-free sweet tart dough (pâte sucrée, for those who like to be technical), and this gave me an excuse to play.

I ended up making a lemon-rhubarb tart that turned out to be one of those foods that is immediately transporting. In this case, it transported me to a warm, sunny afternoon. Even when I ate the tart late at night, or for breakfast the next day, I felt like I was eating the flavors of a leisurely early summer afternoon, outside with the sun warming my shoulders, a chilled glass of something (was it lemonade? Sweet tea?) sitting in the grass next to me. The addition of yogurt was wonderful. You know how some custards are so dense they coat your tongue? Well, not this one. It was silky and creamy, but weightless in the mouth, which was a little surprising, given that I used the richest yogurt I could find. Coddling the softly poached, tart rhubarb, and encased in a tender crust, this custard might be my new favorite. I'll certainly be making more yogurt custards in the future!

But there is one downside to this dessert, if you want to put a negative spin on it: I don't think it's year-round food. True, the crust and custard are season-less, and we all know frozen rhubarb can be had (at my house, at least) in the middle of winter, but the flavors would seem completely wrong any other time of year. There's just something so gentle, and leisurely, and relaxing about it that I can't imagine it tasting right come November.

So, locavores, add this one to your list of gorge-on-now-before-they're-gone foods. And to my saving-for-winter freezer rhubarb? Sorry, but this one's not for you. It seems that your fate lies still elsewhere. But don't worry, I won't throw you away. I do like to save things, after all.


Lemony-Rhubarb Custard Tart
yields one 12-inch tart, or a variety of smaller mixed-size tartlettes

For the Gluten-Free Pâte Sucrée (Sweet Pastry Dough):
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
70 grams gf all-purpose flour mix 
50 grams white rice flour
40 grams millet flour
30 grams cornstarch
10 grams amaranth flour
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1/4 tsp guar gum
large pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
3 Tbsp heavy cream

In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, xanthan and guar gums, and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl, mix the egg yolk and heavy cream. Set aside.

Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse just until you can't see the butter.

Add the flour mixture and pulse to combine. Pour in the egg/cream mixture and process just until everything is combined and beginning to clump together.

Pour the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap, and knead it a few times to form it into a ball. Flatten it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

For the Lemon Yogurt Custard:
8 oz thick, Greek-style lemon yogurt (I used this brand, and pushed it through a strainer to get any bits of zest out. You could also get regular plain yogurt, strain out the whey to thicken it, then add some lemon extract and sugar to taste.)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp cornstarch

Whisk all ingredients together, refrigerate until needed.

Also Needed:
Poached rhubarb (I used Helene's recipe, but if you have your own, use that)

Assemble tart:
Preheat oven to 350º.

Roll out the pâte sucrée between two sheets of plastic wrap to a diameter approximately three inches wider than your tart pan. Peel off the top piece of plastic wrap, and use the bottom piece to transport the dough into your pan. Once you have the dough pressed into the pan, gently ease the plastic wrap off. (If the dough gets too warm the plastic will stick and you'll have trouble getting it off - just stick it in the fridge for a bit to cool down.)

Line the dough with a piece of parchment paper, and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the tart shell until it is golden brown and firm enough that the parchment can be easily removed. (The time will vary depending on the size of your pan, but for a 12-inch pan, it should take at least 25-30 minutes.) Cool the tart shell. At this point, you can wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it for a day or two, until you're ready to bake the tart. Or, just proceed right along with the recipe . . .

Evenly distribute the poached rhubarb in the tart shell, and pour the custard over it. Place the pan on a baking sheet, and bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the custard is set. Let cool. Can be served at room temperature or chilled. Refrigerate any leftovers.

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