Back when I was moving a field of rhubarb (and gleaning the small plants for my own nefarious schemes), I ended up with lots of stalks to take home. Not having the time or inclination to deal with them at that moment, I chopped them into small bits and packed them into the freezer. It’s a month later, and I need the freezer space for the impending blackberry harvest, so last night I pulled them out and let them defrost while I looked for something to do with them.
I was given a bunch of canning books this past winter. Since previously I’d relied on the Joy of Cooking, random recipes from the internet, and my own half-baked notions of what constitutes good food in jars, it was a bit of a relief to read these cook books and find them inspiring. Previously, I’d assumed I was a lost cause. Of the new books, I was particularly leery of the Bern@rdin Complete Book of Home Preserving, figuring that anything published by a corporation would be all about using as many of that business’s products as possible, but was pleased to find that it’s got more interesting stuff in it that I’d expected. Insert comment here regarding book cover and judgement.
So I went through the indexes of my books, looking for recipes involving rhubarb, and there I saw in the aforementioned corporate canning tome: Victorian Barbecue Sauce.
Sometime last year, blogger SJ over at I, Asshole started a project called The Queen’s Scullery (TQS), which is a multi-contributor exploration of Victoriana with a good balance of historical research, committed experimentation, and awesome snark. I’ve been avidly following it these past months, particularly enjoying the posts about food in the Victorian age. With that in mind, please understand how finding a modern-day recipe that called itself Victorian gave me pause for thought, especially as its main ingredient is rhubarb.
Mrs. Isabella Beeton, whose 1861 Book of Household Management inspires much of TQS, has this to say about rhubarb:
This is one of the most useful of all garden productions that are put into pies and puddings. It was comparatively little known till within the last twenty or thirty years, but it is now cultivated in almost every British garden. The part used is the footstalks of the leaves, which, peeled and cut into small pieces, are put into tarts, either mixed with apples or alone. When quite young, they are much better not peeled. Rhubarb comes in season when apples are going out. The common rhubarb is a native of Asia; the scarlet variety has the finest flavour. Turkey rhubarb, the well-known medicinal drug, is the root of a very elegant plant (Rheum palmatum), coming to greatest perfection in Tartary. For culinary purposes, all kinds of rhubarb are the better for being blanched.
As far as I can see, the rhubarb recipes in Beeton’s are all for sweet desserts or medicinal purges, and there is no mention of barbecue sauce. Like, at all.
But what the hell, I said, because there was three pounds of free rhubarb sitting in front of me and the rest of the ingredients were similarly convenient.
The recipe called for raisins, which is not something of which I approve. They’re fine in oatmeal or cookies or even sometimes curry, but in my mind they do not belong in canned items. However, part of my goal this season is to use actual recipes and overcome some of my neuroses, so I gamely minced them up and threw them into the pot.
The sugar: Three and a half cups?!! That’s way too much! I gritted my teeth and added that too.
I had no ground allspice so had to grind it fresh, which was an improvement over the store-bought powdered stuff not only in flavour but because it left little odd-shaped dark flecks in the finished product that were pleasing to the eye.
Only 1/2 cup vinegar seemed like too little liquid and too little acid, but I hoped that the rhubarb itself would meet those requirements once it cooked down.
I resisted the urge to add more onion and salt.
I brought it all to a boil, then let it cook away for a long while. The recipe said to wait for it to become the consistency of commercial barbecue sauce, but even after 30 minutes, I couldn’t see that happening. I even added another 1/2 cup of water because it was getting too thick, but still it wasn’t exactly sauce-like. I think you’d hafta whiz it in a blender if you were really looking for something like a commercial product.
Also, the colour: I realize now that the specific rhubarb I used was a ruby variety and while most rhubarb turns brown when cooked, this one stays a bold red. Absolutely gorgeous, really, but not like a barbecue sauce.
So what was I left with? A Really Beautiful Rhubarb Chutney. It’s nothing like any barbecue sauce I’ve ever heard of, and though it looks like jam it tastes just a bit savoury… Almost like mincemeat pie filling, now that I think about it.
My cookbook’s brief description reads:
Victorian cooks roasted their meat in huge kitchen fireplaces and enhanced it with homemade sauces concocted from garden staples such as rhubarb.
This strikes me as a bit of pointless trivia, too obvious and dull to really argue with. Here’s my updated version:
Web 2.0 cooks roasted their meat in an electric oven, and enhanced it with commercial sauces from the local grocery superstore.
Okay then, sure, the recipe is Victorian… Though after perusing Beeton’s and following TQS, I want to know: If it’s really Victorian, where’s the mace?
In the end, I don’t really care, because this chutney (as I’ve now proclaimed it to be) is not just nice to look at, it’s damn tasty and I look forward to eating it with bread and cheese (egads!) as well as assorted animal proteins.
More importantly, I actually followed a recipe for once, and it turned out great. Not what I was led to expect, but great nonetheless. Maybe this trend will continue , and I can call this the Year of Culinary Obedience.
On a final note, the local country fair used to do an awesome thing in their canning competitions: They’d leave the judges’ comments on the score cards in the display hall for all to see. I absolutely adored reading them, because I’m the sort of person who finds criticism very entertaining. My favourite comment ever was for a jam that scored very low due to some unusual combination of ingredients, regarding which a judge wrote:
“It is never wise to deviate from the standard recipe.”
No deviations! Such a concept would have been very foreign to me before I tried this recipe, and while I still believe that the judge in question is an ornery stick-in-the-mud, I have a new-found appreciation for following instructions. Sometimes.
BEAUTIFUL RHUBARB CHUTNEY
(which must NEVER be confused with Victorian Barbecue Sauce)
adapted from the Bern@rdin Complete Book of Home Preserving
Yields approx. 2 quarts
~ 3 lbs chopped rhubarb (ruby variety is best)
3 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 cup chopped raisins
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
(+ 1/2 cup water if required)
Combine all ingredients and bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain slow boil. Cook with occasional stirring until uniform in texture and of a desired consistency, adding water if it gets too thick for your liking (~40 minutes).
Ladle into hot sterile jars, leaving 1/2″ headspace, and seal appropriately. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.