We seem to a be a nation that has no problem pickling anything. We pickle eggs and that seems strange and terrifying until you try one. We pickle asparagus knowing full well it will make your pee even worse that eating it unpickled. String beans which are then renamed to dilly beans. Cauliflower; always with curry. And recently I have discovered pickled cherries, which may very well revolutionize the Manhattan and the martini.
Pickling and preserving books are now all the rage. It seems there's always a new one every few months purporting to be the end-all, be-all cookery book for packing your pickles.
However, this vinegar-fueld enthusiasm seems to have looked over humble rhubarb. Lovingly discarded like a stuffed animal still on your adult bed out of filial duty and not because you sleep with it, rhubarb is and forever will be in most minds the "pie plant".
It rarely ever gets folded into cakes or scones, except, it seems, by me. My desire to give these garnet stalks* a bit of proper appreciation and my love of pickles could only take me down one logical route.
Pickled rhubarb is sweet, spicy, and simply put: bracing. It's a pickle-lover's pickle. A bit can likely cause the weak-willed to suck air in through their teeth after a bite and grip the table. But the flavor, the sweetness, the sour air, the tart slap, and with a spice with enough bite that it leaves marks like a bad (or good) kisser.
It's a pickle you add to salads and pair with creamy cheeses like Humboldt Fog, Taleggio, or Bucherondin.
Or a salad with feta.
For the rhubarb lover and the pickle pursuer this may be the pinnacle of spring time joy for you. The salad is a nifty way to use it outside of just opening a jar and eating it straight. Which is what I generally do, period, no remorse. The salad has feta for salt, grapes for sweet, parsley for bitter, and whole wheat couscous because that's what I had at the time and I do love Bob's Red Mill brand. Though, any sort of couscous will do nicely.
*Never mind the green ones, I have an unreasonable chromatic-bias against them.
3 stalks rhubarb
2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Half cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
5 whole cloves
5 whole peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
1 32-ounce canning jar, with lid
Trim the rhubarb of its leaves and stocky ends. Slice rhubarb into 2-inch long strips and place in the canning jar. Add anise, pepper flakes, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns.
Pour vinegar, salt, and sugar into a small pot and boil until clear. Pour hot sugar water over rhubarb and stir well. Screw the lid on the canning jar and place in the refrigerator. Let sit for 48 hours. Use within a month.
If you have leftover vinegar after using the pickled rhubarb, reserve it for vinaigrette, cocktails, or whatever else you think needs a tart, astringent sock in the eye.
Couscous Salad with Grapes, Feta, and Pickled Rhubarb
2 cups dried couscous (I used Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat couscous)
3 tablespoons good, fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 cup diced pickled rhubarb*
2 cups halved red grapes
1/3 cup chopped parsley
6 ounces brined feta, crumbled
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Prepare couscous according to the instructions on the package. Pour the cooked couscous into a large bowl. Dribble with olive oil and lemon juice, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss lightly with a fork, making sure to not mash the couscous. Add pickled rhubarb, grapes, parsley, feta, and red pepper flakes (if using). Toss lightly again, and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve immediately.