What’s Missing From Your Potato Salad? Rhubarb.
At first I wasn’t sure exactly how the phrase, “rhubarb potato salad” led me to vividly recall a minor track from Disney’s 2006 smash hit High School Musical, but now I think I know why. “Stick to the Status Quo” is a peppy ensemble number wherein the students of Albuquerque East High School—inspired by fellow classmate Troy Bolton’s decision to both act and ball—confess secret hobbies to their respective cliques during lunch. Athlete Zeke likes to bake! Smart Martha likes hip-hop dancing! Skater Dude (no name given) plays the cello! Each time, they’re shamed by their finger-wagging peers, who sing, “No! No! No! Stick to the stuff you know.” By the end, we, as audience, discover that these students are actually incredibly complex individuals, despite how they appear on the surface.
Just like Zeke, Martha, and Skater Dude, rhubarb’s true nature is confined by its clique, and that clique is dessert. But rhubarb is complex, both in flavor and in history. It was, at one time, a popular pharmaceutical across Eurasia worth its weight in gold. Cultures all along historical silk routes spanning from western China to Europe feature rhubarb dishes both sweet and savory. But for whatever reason, recipes for rhubarb online and in most cookbooks skew heavily toward sweet: It’s in tarts, pies, compotes, and cobblers, and yes, it’s delicious in each of those things, but that’s not all the tart crimson stalk can do.
Until perusing Søren Staun Petersen’s new cookbook, Rhubarb: New and Classic Recipes for Sweet and Savory Dishes, I myself had been guilty of reinforcing the sweet status quo on rhubarb. I rarely ever bought it, and when I did it would be for something like rhubarb custard cake. Petersen’s recipe for savory rhubarb potato salad, the first in the book, was both a provocation and an opportunity to try something new.
Rhubarb: New and Classic Recipes for Sweet and Savory Dishes
Petersen, who’s in Copenhagen, told me he was inspired by the idea of taking “a well-known ingredient that people normally only consider for one thing and implementing it in new ways.” He nestles roasted rhubarb slices on a pizza bianca, bakes rhubarb pieces in cream and spiced quinoa to go under pork cutlets, and makes sauce with rhubarb juice for a beef and broccolini stir-fry.
Each recipe provides a slightly different perspective on savory rhubarb, but I keep coming back to the potato salad. It strikes me as both straight-forward and unexpected, a bolt of novelty to an unadorned and extremely familiar staple. I was curious to understand rhubarb as an accent rather than a centerpiece, to get a sense for whether that brash, astringent, and fickle flavor—so easily chased away by overzealous cooking—could hold its own in a larger ensemble.
The potato salad recipe is how Petersen’s sisters used to make it: unabashedly creamy, with generous quantities of crème fraîche and mayonnaise. It’s a departure from more cautiously dressed, and perhaps more photogenic, potato salads popular these days, but those of us who find comfort in the cooling stodge of an exceptionally luscious potato salad—either on its own or in the company of cookout fare or in a banchan spread—will find Peterson’s recipe to be a surprising riff that’s still loyal to the form.
Like any good mayo-based scoopable fare, everything comes together with a neat chop and plop. The only challenge is properly cooking the rhubarb. While developing the cookbook, Petersen tried pickling rhubarb, but found that vinegar decimated the nuances in flavor. Instead he settled on poaching rhubarb slices (about an inch long) in sugar water for 5-ish minutes, carefully monitoring their texture. When done correctly, the method manages what one might hope for in a rhubarb pickle—but it’s a narrow sweet spot where the rhubarb slices are still tart and have a squeaky bite. Too little time, and the pieces will be too astringent and fibrous, too long and they’ll turn to a mealy purée. Just right, and you’re rewarded with a collection of ruby gems, with the tender crunch of deli gherkins, and a fruity sweetness still bristling with sour static.
Petersen’s salad would be superb with or without the additional rhubarb—the flavor is a dead ringer for sour cream and onion Lays. “It's very fatty. It's very plain. It's very anonymous. It's good, but the only kick it has is the red onion.” Petersen says. The rhubarb takes the richness down with a bright punch; the same way grapes or apples might in chicken salad. The bite-sized pieces create a striking visual, but they’re also large enough to hold up against the more assertive flavors of red onion and mustard.
If you prefer less creamy potato salads, I’d recommend starting with half the suggested amount of crème fraîche and mayo and adjusting from there. Or go even more your own way, and use Petersen’s poached rhubarb for your own potato salad recipe. He certainly won’t be offended. “What I really want people to get out of these recipes is to get inspiration to try things on their own,” Petersen says.
There’s nothing wrong with rhubarb desserts. They present rhubarb at its best, and there’s no reason we should deprive ourselves from a quintessential slice of strawberry rhubarb pie. Just remember that when you have the courage to stray from the status quo, you might find yourself at the start of something new.
Søren Staun Petersen
Spring Potato Salad With Rhubarb
Originally Appeared on Epicurious
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