In a time of international produce and air freight, we become accustomed to seeing asparagus and strawberries on our supermarket shelves year-round. Not so much rhubarb, which appears around May first from West Coast growers. But when these harbingers of spring appear locally it is different: The flavor is more intense, the freshness is palpable and the feeling is special.
The luxury of having all things available all the time is not as good as it sounds. We are very lucky that, on the North Fork, when the time comes, we can savor the real thing. Here is a meal that features all three:
Strawberry Rhubarb Spinach Salad with Almonds and Goat Cheese
Slice rhubarb on the bias into half-inch pieces to make 2 cups. Place the rhubarb into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add 1/4 cup sugar and bring to a boil. Strain and cool under cold running water.
Slice 2 cups of strawberries and set aside.
Wash 4 bunches of local spinach and remove the stems. Tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces, wash again and dry in a salad spinner.
Toast 1/2 cup sliced almonds in a dry sauté pan for 5 minutes at medium heat and set aside.
For the dressing, combine 2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar, the juice and zest of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 2 teaspoons honey, 2 chopped strawberries, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 cup olive oil. Shake in a mason jar and set aside.
To assemble, toss the spinach in a large bowl with 1/4 cup of the dressing. Toss the rhubarb and strawberries in another bowl with 1/4 cup of the dressing. Portion the spinach onto 4 to 6 plates and spoon the rhubarb mixture on top. Garnish with the toasted almonds and some local goat cheese. Pass the remaining dressing.
Chicken and Beef Shish-Kebabs with Rhubarb Salsa, Barley Pilaf and Grilled Asparagus
Cut 1 pound each of sirloin steak and boneless, skinless, chicken breasts into 2-inch cubes.
Prepare a marinade by combining 1/3 cup white wine; the juice and zest from 1 lemon; 4 cloves of garlic, sliced; chopped rosemary, oregano, tarragon and thyme to make 1/4 cup; 1/4 cup olive oil; and salt and pepper to taste.
Cut the following vegetables into 2-inch squares: red and green peppers, Vidalia onion and zucchini.
Blanch 4 slices of bacon for 2 minutes in the microwave. Trim the white part from 2 bunches of green onions and wrap them in the bacon.
Remove the stems from 1 package of baby bella mushrooms.
Skewer the steak pieces with the vegetables and bacon-wrapped onions and place in a shallow casserole. Repeat with the chicken pieces and pour the marinade over all. Marinate from 2 hours to 8 hours.
For rhubarb salsa: Add to a saucepan 1/2 cup chopped red onion; 1/2 cup golden raisins; 1/4 cup honey; 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar; 1 minced jalapeno pepper, seeds removed; 1 teaspoon minced garlic; 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin; and 4 cups diced rhubarb. Cook on medium heat, covered, for about 15 minutes, then remove the lid and continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
For barley: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan and add 1/2 cup chopped shallots. Cook briefly and add 1 cup barley and 3 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.
For asparagus: Purchase 1 bunch of thick-stemmed local asparagus. Break off the ends and line up the asparagus on a cutting board. Run 2 skewers through to make a raft, with about 8 pieces of asparagus on each raft. Place on a sheet pan, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
At service time: Prepare a charcoal grill and wait for the coals to turn white. Grill the chicken shish-kebabs on both sides and remove to a warm oven. Grill the beef until it reaches desired doneness and add to the warm oven. Grill the rafts of asparagus until lightly charred and remove. Place the barley on the center of the plate with the kebabs on top. Place the asparagus and salsa on the side.
Rhubarb Tarte Tatin
Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the stove at medium heat. Add 4 tablespoons butter and 1 cup sugar. Cook for about 5 minutes, letting the sugar melt and just begin to caramelize.
Add 4 cups sliced rhubarb, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Continue cooking until mixture begins to thicken and to caramelize, about 15 minutes, and remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 1/2 cups flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Cut 6 tablespoons cold butter into half-inch cubes and chill 1/2 cup shortening. Cut the butter and shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingers.
Combine 2 eggs and 1/3 cup milk and stir into the flour mixture with a fork to form a dough.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, knead briefly and roll into a 10-inch circle. Lay the dough over the skillet and place in a 375-degree oven. Bake until the pastry browns and the mixture bubbles, about 35 minutes.
Cool for 15 minutes, then turn upside-down onto a large round plate. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
Note: The shish-kebabs were prepared by my friends Larry and Barbara Salmiery. The rhubarb tarte tatin recipe was adapted from a Saveur magazine recipe for rhubarb upside-down cake.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].