An idea came to me during a greenmarket excursion not too long ago. While staring at a particularly intimidating pile of dandelion greens, I thought: why not experiment with foods I have no idea how to use? And right there, a tradition was born.
Out of that tradition comes a blog post that I plan to revisit periodically throughout the year; I call it Produce Challenge. Nope, it’s not a zucchini-carving contest or a raw-food-only weight-loss diet. It’s a method I devised to expand my culinary horizons: a much more fun and noble pursuit than trying to squeeze into last season’s shorts.
Now during the growing season, I crack open my favorite kitchen companions: Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham (nobody should be without this), Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judi Rodgers, and A Well-Seasoned Appetite by the inimitable Molly O’Neill—and look for ideas, techniques, guidance, and inspiration for cooking with excitingly unfamiliar produce.
Some recipes don't turn out quite right, of course. But for the most part I’ve expanded my produce and all-round kitchen know-how by leaps and bounds. And I keep discovering new books with new recipes all the time.
Lately, though, I’ve added a new level of difficulty to the challenge: finding different uses for ingredients that I always use the same way, over and over. Take this past weekend for instance. I was standing in line waiting to buy some farm-fresh eggs and bok choy, when a lanky, red-and-green bunch of rhubarb caught my eye. “Mmmmm,” I thought. “Pie!” But then I thought, must rhubarb always be relegated to an Emile Henry dish?
Inspired by Mary Prior's recent release, Rhubarbaria: Recipes for Rhubarb, I snatched up the veggie (yep, it's a veggie), paid, and marched home, determined to break convention. But the books I always rely on didn’t help me out too much this time around; it all seemed like more of the same.
Then it hit me: what about a rhubarb-infused cocktail?
So I washed a few stalks, cut them up into small-ish pieces, and threw them in a pot with 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar, and a couple of big pieces of orange zest to cook up a flavored simple syrup. (I’m a big fan of keeping simple syrup on hand for cocktails—it mixes well and adds just enough sweetness to certain drinks without overdoing it.)
Within about 15 minutes I had a gorgeous, blush-colored syrup that had the racy bite of rhubarb with a little sugar to tamp down the bitterness. I allowed the mix to cool down, and then hit my at-home bar to test mixers for my new concoction. Silver tequila and fresh orange juice seemed like a good idea, but in practice, the pure, vegetal notes of the spirit wrestled the rhubarb to the ground. I thought about a play on a Negroni, but figured the same thing might happen—the rhubarb would get lost in the botanicals of the gin and bite of the Campari. Bourbon? Maybe. But the obvious choice seemed to be the easiest—vodka.
Success! Not only did the vodka work with the rhubarb-infused syrup, but it worked in myriad combinations. My favorite was a clever take on a very familiar recipe. I grabbed a pint of strawberries I’d purchased at the greenmarket, and muddled a few in a shaker along with a drop of the rhubarb syrup. Next came the ice, the juice of a whole lemon (because I always put fresh lemon juice in my fruit pies), a half-ounce of Cointreau, and an ounce of the rhubarb syrup.
I shook and poured it all into tall glass. It was three-quarters full and looked pretty thick, so I topped it off with some seltzer. The results were perfect: strawberry-rhubarb pie in a glass! Refreshing, not too sweet, and best of all, thoroughly innovative. I considered it a Produce Challenge win. So maybe I did end up right back at the old standby of pie, but at least I was thinking outside the pie dish.