Stewed Rhubarb

A ham sandwich with stewed rhubarbAt home I call this preparation stewed rhubarb, a name that has all the sex appeal of a cactus.  At work I call it rhubarb compote or jam to trick other people into eating it.  It’s not a compote because there aren’t any large pieces of fruit.  It’s not really a jam either, because it hasn’t been set with pectin.  It’s just stewed rhubarb.

Stewed rhubarb is rhubarb cooked with sugar.  It’s a preparation so basic that it doesn’t need a recipe, though as a ballpark ratio you can start with 2 parts chopped fresh rhubarb and 1 part white sugar by volume.

Cook this mixture over medium-high heat.  Soon liquid will pool on the bottom of the pan.  With time this liquid will boil off and the rhubarb will soften into a cohesive paste.

Depending on the rhubarb you use and how aggressively you cook it, stewed rhubarb can be moist and delicate or thick and jammy; it can also run the spectrum from rosy pink to vibrant red to caramel brown.

You may be thinking, “Rhubarb cooked with sugar: big deal! Why does this warrant it’s own blog post?”

One: It’s versatile.  Actually it’s the starting point for about 90% of all the ways I consume rhubarb

Some ideas:

  • Spoon over yogurt and granola for breakfast.
  • Spoon over custard for dessert.
  • Spoon over ice cream for dessert.
  • Layer in a glass with custard and pound cake to make a trifle.
  • Thicken slightly with cornstarch to make rhubarb crumble.
  • Thicken thoroughly with cornstarch to make rhubarb pie.
  • Eat with cake, especially angel food cake and pound cake.
  • Spread on toast.
  • It actually works extremely well in savoury applications, too.  With a bit of onion, as a sauce for grilled pork chops or a spread on a ham sandwich.  The photo at the top of this post is a sandwich with smoked ham, Dijon mayonnaise, stewed rhubarb, cucumber, and alfalfa sprouts.
  • See my rhubarb flavour web for more ideas

Two: It’s stable.  It is basically a preserve, so it keeps well in the fridge for a couple of weeks without formal canning.  I think it’s smarter to freeze stewed rhubarb than chopped raw rhubarb, as it loses a lot of volume when cooked and maximizes freezer space.  And it is already sweetened and ready to go.

I happened to talk about all of this stuff on Global TV yesterday morning.


Making Soap with Lard

Homemade soap in a mold.If you had told me five years ago that one day I would make soap I would have scoffed with self-righteous indignation.  Being a very serious chef and a bit of a dink I eschewed the “arts and crafts” that took precious space away from food at the farmers’ market.  I don’t feel that way anymore: I appreciate the pottery and the quilts and the pysanka, and even the beeswax candles.

For the past few years I have been rendering lard from sides of pork.  Now, I think I eat more lard than most: I use it in pie dough, I make spreads like Grammelschmalz and Schmalzfleisch, and use it as an everyday cooking fat.  Even so, I can’t eat it as fast as the anatomy of my pigs demands that I produce it. When I cut this year’s pig there was still about ten pounds in my freezer.  I decided to use it up by making an inedible pork product: soap.

Traditional soap is a mixture of fat, water, and lye.  Lye is sodium hydroxide, a very strong base, once commonly used in homes as a cleaner, valued for its ability to break grease into water-soluble debris that can be rinsed away.  It is also used in the traditional production of bagels and pretzels, which are briefly boiled in a lye solution before being baked in an oven.  (Milder baking soda often subs in these days.)  I have no idea where to purchase lye; there just happened to be some in the kitchen at Elm Catering, remnants of a pretzel-bite experiment.

Anyways, when water, lye, and fat are mixed properly a process called saponification begins.  I tried to read the Wikipedia article on saponification, but understand almost none of it.  All we need to know is that saponification converts these three seemingly incompatible ingredients into bars of hard soap.  For specific recipes and procedural details I used this website, recommended by Michael Ruhlman.

The process in a nutshell:

Dissolve the lye powder in cold water.  A chemical reaction occurs and the water actually becomes quite hot.  My cold tap water was at almost 80°C by the time all the lye was dissolved.  Best not lean over the bowl as you dissolve the lye: sniffing the fumes is a bit like inhaling bleach. The lye solution must cool to below 37°C before it can be mixed with the lard.

Melt the lard.  While the lye solution cools you can slowly heat the lard.  Optimal temperature is 85°C-115°C.

Mixing.  Pour the lard into the lye solution while stirring.  The mixture must then be stirred vigorously until it thickens, like a custard.  This is called “trace” stage.  I used a stick blender and had a pudding consistency in about three minutes.

Pour into molds.  I used a steel baking tray lined with plastic wrap.

Shape.  After 1-3 days you can cut the soap, still in its mold, into bars.  After 3-7 days you can remove these bars from the mold.

Cure.  At this point the soap is still too basic to be used on your hands.  It must cure for another two weeks or so, during which time the saponification process continues, the pH drops significantly, and the soap hardens and becomes more opaque.

So, what’s the soap like?  It’s fine.  It’s soap.  The first thing most people ask is if it smells like pork because it’s made from lard.  The answer is no: if you render the lard properly it should be very neutral.

The soap lathers, through maybe not as much as a bar of Irish Spring.

For me the real value of making soap is that it uses up the last bits of fat from the animal that I have been unable to consume at the table.  The process is dead simple, and quick.  I don’t know if I’ll be making soap every year, but it’s a useful trick to have when the freezer runneth over with lard.

A stack of homemade bars of soap

Roast Pumpkin Seeds

A lil' bowl of roasted pumpkin seedsRoast pumpkinseeds are a very rustic North American snack.  While pumpkin seeds are relished in several far flung parts of the world, including central America (pepitas) and Austria (kurbiskern), I think ours is the only civilization that eats pumpkinseeds in their shell.  Pumpkinseed shells are woody.  Frankly they are just barely edible, and certainly not digestible.

But I do like them.  Lengthy chewing promotes contemplation.  Rumination, even.

And though you can eat pumpkins throughout the fall and winter and into early spring, growing up I only ever ate roast pumpkin seeds at Hallowe’en.

A nifty trick for separating the seeds from the stringy pumpkin guts: throw the whole mess in a large pot of water.  If you rub the mass between your hands, you loose the pumpkin flesh from the seeds, which float to the top and can be easily skimmed off.  Dry them on a bake sheet lined with paper towel overnight.

Toss with oil.  Over the years I’ve flipped and flopped between oven-baking and pan-frying.  Certainly the oven is more gentle: it takes longer, but browns the seeds more evenly.  Pan-frying is more aggressive, and quick.  Right now I’m leaning towards pan-frying.

Traditionally salt and sugar and nothing else.  Paprika might be good, too.

Happy Hallowe’en.


This is a guest post by the Button Soup Sr. Backyard Correspondent Lisa A. Zieminek.


My name is Lisa.  You might remember me from such posts as “Candied Lilac” and “What to do when your boyfriend hides food experiments all over the basement” (link not available).  Today I’m here to talk to you about worms – not the kind that you get from eating street food in Thailand; the kind you use for composting. That’s right, we’re going to talk about vermicomposting.

Vermicomposting is a fancy name for putting worms in a bin and letting them eat your food scraps.  It’s a great option for people who live in apartments or don’t have space for an outdoor compost.  In our case, vermicomposting allows us to compost throughout the winter.  Otherwise we would just be adding stuff to our frozen outdoor compost pile, but it wouldn’t really do anything until the spring.  Also, who wants to trudge through the snow in -30°C to add stuff to a compost bin.  Once the gardening season rolls along we have a bin full of super fertile soil-amending goodness.

I set up our first worm bin this past January.  Setting up the system was really easy.  Probably the hardest part of the whole set-up was naming all of the worms.

worm names









All you need to set up your very own worm bin is an opaque plastic bin, a drill, some newspaper or cardboard,  a shredder, and some worms.  Drill holes in the sides of the bin.  This will allow some airflow so the worms don’t get too moist:

photo (7)

You can also drill holes in the bottom.  This will allow any excess moisture to drain out of the bottom of the bin.  Actually you want to prevent your vermicompost from getting so wet that there would be water draining out, but the holes are there just in case.

photo (9)

Next, find some newspaper or cardboard.  This will act as bedding for the worms.  This should be plain newspaper (not glossy inserts) and regular cardboard.  Run it through a paper shredder.  Soak it in water, then ring it out so it has the wetness of a damp sponge.  Fluff it back up and put it in your bin.










Basically your bin is ready for worms now.  I bought my worms at Earth’s General Store. They are a little pricey, but you should only need to buy them once: eventually you’ll have enough worms to make multiple bins for your own house, plus make bins for all your friends.  The type of worm normally used for vermicomposting is Red Wriggler, or Eisenia fetida.  You can add the worms to the bin, along with a couple cups of soil.  That’s it!  Your bin is ready to go.  You can start slowly adding food scraps to the bin.  Most information I read said the worms can eat about half their weight in food each day (so if you bought a pound of worms, they can handle about a half a pound of food each day).  They might take a little while to get used to their new home though, so start with small amounts of food.  They like fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea leaves, and ground up egg shells.  It’s best if the food is cut into smaller pieces.  Don’t feed them citrus, dairy, meat, oil, or salty foods.  Try to avoid putting seeds in the bin as the worms can’t break them down and they might sprout when you go to put the worm castings in your garden.

Speaking of worm castings (aka worm poop), once you’ve had your bin for a few months you’re going to want to harvest the nutrient-rich castings for your garden.  There’s several methods to do this.  The only one I’ve used so far involves placing some food on one side of the bin. Then, stop feeding the worms any other food for the next few weeks.  The worms will all migrate to the side with the food, and the other side will be mostly worm-free castings that you can take out for your garden.














The worm castings are a great addition to your garden.  They contain micronutrients and trace minerals.  They also provide beneficial bacteria and microbes to the garden.


Once you’ve harvested the castings, you can also take the worm filled side of the bin and split it in half between two bins.  The worms have been reproducing while they’ve been making all those castings, so you should have a lot more worms than you started with.  And then from here on out the growth is exponential.  Worms bins for everyone.

Some of my more squeamish friends are not so keen on the worm bins.  The first question seems to always be “BUT WHAT IF ALL THE WORMS GET OUT OF THE BIN AND GO INTO YOUR BEDROOM AND GET INTO YOUR BED???”.  The worms don’t want to get out of the bin.  They like it where it’s moist and dark and cool.  If they somehow did get out, they would promptly try to get back in.  And if they couldn’t, they would probably dry up and die.  I think it is VERY unlikely that Allan and I will ever wake up and see a worm staring at us from the bedside table.  Crickets on the other hand – crickets will get out of the box and live for several months hiding throughout your house.  But that’s a story for another day.

Herb Vinegar

Resinous herbs can easily handle lights frosts, so this time of year we still have a good deal of thyme, rosemary, and other robust herbs in the garden.  Thankfully there is an entire repertoire of methods to preserve them before the snow falls.  You can collect them in large bouquets and hang them in your kitchen to dry, for instance.  Or make salted herbs.  Or pack them into a jar and pour vinegar over them.  This past week I racked a couple gallons of cider vinegar from a healthy vinegar crock, so herb vinegar seemed the best way to save our thyme.

The aromatic components of herbs are called essential oils.  They more closely resemble fats, ethanol, and acetic acid than they do water, and they therefore dissolve readily in oil, booze, and vinegar.  Over the coming weeks and months sprigs of thyme will infuse my cider vinegar with their volatile essential oils, and the resulting liquid will then be used in vinaigrettes and marinades.

There are two ways to maximize the extraction of essential oils when making herb vinegar.  One is to lightly bruise the herbs before submerging in vinegar, which damages some of the plant cells and allows the vinegar to better penetrate and dissolve the oils.  Another is to heat the vinegar before you pour it over the herbs.

I elected to lightly bruise the thyme, but not to heat the vinegar.  I’m hoping this will better preserve the flavour of the fresh thyme.

Now we wait.

A jar of thyme vinegar.

Quick Breads

Quick breads are breads made with chemical leaveners, instead of yeast.  They’re quick in that they don’t have to ferment.

Chemical leaveners are interesting concoctions.  They were originally byproducts of salt-making.  Most salt is made by boiling or slowly evaporating a brine.  This brine could be seawater, or it could be water that was flushed through an underground deposit to dissolve the salt and ease its extraction.  Either way, once the brine is reduced to a certain concentration, sodium chloride, table salt, precipitates and is easily harvested.  The remaining liquid, called bittern, is still rich in all kinds of other compounds: Epsom salt, for instance, and magnesium. In 1792 sodium carbonate, or soda, was extracted from bittern for the first time, and subsequently used in countless industries, including the manufacture of chemical leaveners.[1]

Baking Soda.  Most are familiar with baking soda, sodium bicarbonate.  It’s a basic (high pH) powder, and when mixed with an acid, like vinegar, it produces carbon dioxide gas and water.  The carbon dioxide is what makes it useful as a leavener.  Quick breads leavened by soda therefore require some form of acid in the batter, like buttermilk or sour cream.

Baking Powder.  Baking powder works on the same principle: the mixing of an acid and a base to produce carbon dioxide and water.  The main difference is that the acid and base are both present in baking powder, but they can’t interact with each other until they’re mixed into a liquid or semi-liquid batter.  The base is sodium bicarbonate.  There are several acid salts that can be used.  My can of Magic Baking Powder tells me it uses monocalcium phosphate.  There is also usually some kind of neutral starch, like cornstarch.  You can actually make baking powder at home by combining baking soda and cream of tartar (an acid salt, originally a byproduct of wine production) in a ratio of 1:2 by volume.

Double-acting baking powder provides two rises for quick breads.  The first occurs as soon as the wet and dry ingredients are combined, as described above.  The second rise happens in the oven, and is driven by an acid that only reacts with bases at those elevated temperatures.

The most common way to make quick breads is to combine all the dry ingredients (flours, sugars, salt, leaveners) in one bowl, all the wet ingredients (dairy, eggs, oils) in another, then to pour the wet into the dry.  The batter is mixed until the wet and dry are just, just combined, as over-mixing will develop too much gluten.  Some recipes even specify that there should be little clumps of unincorporated dry ingredients.  Because of the lack of extensive mixing, quick breads have a tender, slightly crumbly texture, compared to lean, yeasted breads like baguette.  The absence of yeast also gives them a “cleaner,” less complex flavour.

Quick Breads:

1.  Kurlansky, Mark.  Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky.  Vintage Canada 2002 Edition.  Page 297.