This Changes Everything: Rhubarb Salsa

Rachel Tepper Paley
May 14, 2014

Photo credit: Getty Images

Making a fresh-from-scratch salsa in the spring can be a challenge. Tomatoes and tomatillos aren’t quite in season in most of America yet, and mangos are a bit overplayed in the salsa department. (A person could get lost picking through all the mango salsa recipes on the web!)

But chef Chris Leahy at La Cenita Steak in New York City has found salsa inspiration in the most unlikely of places: rhubarb.

“Salsas don’t have to just have tomatoes, pineapple, and mango,” Leahy told us. “The reason they’re used is that they provide acidity and meatiness. We’re just [using] the same principle with rhubarb.”

Yep, rhubarb: that hearty, tart stalk usually plied with sugar and stuck in a pie or compote. Leahy’s salsa is plenty sweet, too—he braises the rhubarb in a mixture of caramel, raspberries, strawberries, Chambord, Campari, and honey—but it takes a savory turn thanks to diced jalapeños, cilantro, red onion, chili oil, and bitter cocoa nibs.

The salsa has already proven its mettle. Last week, Leahy took home top honors at Thrillist’s Taco Knockout competition thanks to a duck chorizo taco topped with (you guessed it) rhubarb salsa. A version of the winning dish will be on La Cenita’s menu starting next week.

Leahy’s recipe looks lengthy, but the hardest part is taking the time to assemble the ingredients and making sure to not burn the caramel. Make a large batch of the rhubarb sauté to save for later—it’ll keep in the fridge for up to a week in an airtight container.

Leahy suggests pairing the salsa with “deep flavored” fatty meats like braised duck or beef that could use a little “brightening,” but reckons it’d be splendid alongside grilled fish or scallops, too. “I bet it would even be good with tortilla chips,” Leahy offered. And that’s the real test of a good salsa.

Photo credit: Thrillist

Rhubarb and Cocoa Nib Salsa
Courtesy of La Cenita Steak’s Executive Chef Chris Leahy
Serves 8 to 10

1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1 pint of raspberries
1 pint Chambord
1 cup strawberry puree (made from 12 whole fresh strawberries)
Peels of 2 oranges
1 whole vanilla pod
2 tablespoons Campari
1 quart water
3 tablespoons of honey
2 tablespoons salt
3 pounds rhubarb, sliced at a bias all the way down the stalk, about 1/2-inch thick
3 jalapeños, seeded and finely diced

½ bunch cilantro, washed and chopped fine
½ red onion, finely diced
1 cup cocoa nibs
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoon lemon oil
2 tablespoon chili oil
Salt and pepper

Make a light caramel by slowly heating the sugar with 1/4 cup of water until it is a light golden, amber color, about 230 degrees on a candy thermometer. Be sure the sugar is completely dissolved before adding the raspberries. Cook the raspberries briefly in the caramel, about 60 seconds, before adding Chambord to to deglaze. Stir in the strawberry puree, orange peels, vanilla bean, Campari, water, honey and salt. Bring the liquid to a low simmer before adding the sliced rhubarb. Cook the rhubarb until fork-tender and then cool in the braising liquid.

Carefully remove 8 cups of rhubarb from the braising liquid and dice. Discard braising liquid. In a medium bowl, combine the rhubarb, jalapeño, cilantro, red onion, and cocoa nibs. Add the oils and season generously with salt and pepper, to taste. Allow the mixture to marinate for at least an hour at room temperature. Serve. Salsa will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week.