The rhubarb cocktail at Vino Rosina is made with strawberries,… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
It isn't spring until you have swallowed some rhubarb. That is the way fans of this tangy plant feel, myself included.
As soon as the crimson stalks show up in area farmers' markets and the produce sections of a few grocery stores, we start thinking of ways to enjoy its unique, sour flavor.
We make strawberry rhubarb pies, rhubarb cobblers, rhubarb crunches. Yet the other day, I journeyed into a rhubarb pleasure zone that I had never visited before: rhubarb beverages.
On a recent bright spring afternoon, I found myself sitting at the bar of Vino Rosina, a stylish new restaurant and wine bar in the old Bagby Furniture building in Harbor East. There, surrounded by waiters clad in black, I sipped a bright red rhubarb martini.
The drink had been drawn from the mother ship of rhubarb martinis, a striking looking glass vessel. It was perched behind the bar and held pieces of rhubarb, strawberries and basil, all floating in a bath of vodka.
My rhubarb martini was pretty good, not too sweet, with faint notes of basil, berries and, of course, the puckery flavor of the "pie plant," rhubarb.
The drink was dreamed up by Jesse Sandlin and her restaurant colleagues. Sandlin is the spirited, tattooed local woman who made it through several rounds of the "Top Chef" competition last season. Now the executive chef at Vino Rosina, which opened last month, Sandlin said the idea for the cocktail came from a brainstorming session with the restaurant's sommelier Olivia Boru and general manager Tiffany Helemau.
"We wanted a cocktail with a seasonal infusion," Sandlin said, "and we thought, 'What about strawberries and rhubarb?' Strawberries and rhubarb have a real affinity for each other. Rhubarb is not overly sweet, it has little bit of tartness, giving some sourness to the body of the drink," she said.
To make the concoction, Sandlin poached chopped rhubarb in simple syrup. Then she mixed it with sliced strawberries and a handful of basil leaves and let the mixture steep in Prairie Organic Vodka for three to five days.
Displayed behind the bar in the glass vessel, the rhubarb mixture looked both medieval and medicinal.
When I ordered the drink, the bartender turned the tap, drawing a portion of liquid into a metal shaker. Then she strained the serving into a martini glass and placed it before me.
It looked like strawberry Kool-Aid, a favorite beverage of my youth. But it tasted much better. The sweetness of the strawberries were tempered by the earthy acidity of the rhubarb.
It was a smooth, soothing way to enjoy a seasonal dose of rhubarb. I thought of having another but after considering the $12 price and the prospect of downing more 80 proof vodka, I opted to limit myself to one. Sandlin told me the rhubarb martini will be on the menu for several weeks.
I subsequently learned that another local bar, Mr. Rain's Fun House in the American Visionary Art Museum, is also pouring a libation made with rhubarb. This one is a sangria made with rhubarb syrup, Brooklyn lager, pear liqueur and lemon juice, Perez Klebhan, the restaurant's chief mixologist, told me. It sells for $9 a pint.
This liquid rhubarb action looked like it could almost be called a trend.
A couple of days later, while puttering around in my home kitchen, I still had a taste for rhubarb. So I made some rhubarb lemonade. Using a recipe I found on a rhubarb lover's website, I sliced up two stalks of rhubarb that I had bought at the Sunday morning farmers' market in downtown Baltimore.
I boiled them in a pot with some sugar water along with lemon zest and vanilla. Next, I added a cup of sliced strawberries and let that mixture simmer a while. When it cooled, I pushed the mixture through a coarse sieve, then added more strawberries and lemon juice.
After filling a glass with ice cubes, I poured in a serving of rhubarb lemonade, and took a long, slow sip.
It was refreshing. The strawberry and rhubarb flavors were stronger in this drink than in the martini. It was also sweeter, a little too sugary for my taste.
This drink needed something, I thought. So I poked around in my liquor cabinet and found a bottle of vodka. One shot made this drink perfect.
As its fans know, rhubarb is a quirky plant. Technically it is a vegetable, yet it is regarded as a fruit. Its leaves are toxic but its stalks, which resemble crimson celery, can, with help from a little sugar, be transformed into seasonal delights.
We rhubarb followers might not be legion, but we are exceptionally loyal.
For us, it is not officially springtime until we have sampled this tart treat. Now, thanks to a couple of local mixologists, we can even drink it.
Strawberry Rhubarb Lemonade
Makes: 6 servings
pound rhubarb, (about 2 cups) trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
cup sugar or to taste
strips of lemon zest, about 3 inches long
cups sliced strawberries, divided use
cup fresh lemon juice
In a saucepan, stir together the water, rhubarb, sugar, lemon zest and vanilla. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and simmer, covered, for 8 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the strawberries and boil, covered, for 2 minutes. Let the mixture cool and strain it through a coarse sieve set over a bowl or pitcher, pressing hard on the solids. Stir in the remaining 1 cup strawberries and the lemon juice. Pour into glasses filled with ice. Garnish with more lemon zest if desired.
Source: The Rhubarb Compendium Web site (rhubarbinfo.com)