I’ve had recipes for rhubarb relish passed to me from both my family and Lisa’s. Though one is from Ontario and the other from Alberta, they are uncannily similar: one part chopped rhubarb and one part chopped onion, stewed together with cinnamon, clove, and other “pumpkin pie” spices.
This has been my default rhubarb sauce to accompany meat and hearty bread for the past couple years, but I have to admit it’s not a show-stopper. I’ve been trying to elevate this recipe, and a friend of mine recently found the way. His discovery of rhubarb onion jam was one of those rare times when something in the kitchen goes horribly wrong, but the food turns out better than if all had gone according to plan. I think many of our favourite foods were probably discovered this way: grape juice was left out, and mysteriously started to ferment; dry leaves fell into a pot of boiling water; or a marshmallow was accidently impaled on a stick and left too close to a campfire. Rhubarb onion jam resulted from a similarly serendipitous mistake.
This happy accident can be reproduced in a controlled manner through an intensive cycle of developing and capturing fond. Remember that word, “fond”? The one with the nasal “on” and the silent “d”? We discussed it briefly here.The mistake was that a pot of simmering rhubarb relish was left unattended for an hour. By divine providence the pot was covered, and enough moisture trapped within that the relish didn’t really burn, but rather stuck to the bottom in a thick mat of caramelized “jam.” With a little water and scraping, that jam was retrieved and found to be delicious.
To create good fond, you need a stainless steel pan. To capture it, you need a wooden spoon, and possibly some liquid.
Start with the abovementioned ratio of rhubarb and onions. Cook them in a bit of hot oil. When the rhubarb and onions have broken down to a paste, spread them evenly across the surface of the pan. Once a layer of caramel-coloured fond has developed on the bottom, use the wooden spoon to scrape the fond into the paste. Redistribute the mixture and repeat. If the fond is difficult to remove, add a few tablespoons of water; they should help lift the sticky residue off the pan.
The mixture will slowly darken and thicken. Continue the process until a jam-like consistency is achieved. I finished the mixture with honey, to balance the concentrated tartness of the rhubarb.
The rhubarb and onions shrink dramatically in the process. Starting with 300 g onions and 300 g rhubarb (about four cups of ingredients all told), I finish with less than one cup of jam.
Rhubarb onion jam gets along famously with cornbread and pork.