The only thing that is traditional during the holidays when it comes to food is that we know that our traditional meals are always going to be non-traditional…! When it was time to give thought to the Thanksgiving dinner coming from our kitchen this year neither roast turkey nor pumpkin pie even crossed our minds… a delicious cranberry sauce created and posted last Thanksgiving did, however!
Inspiration, as you all know, can come from many places when the urge to create springs to life… and that is exactly what happened when it came to a lovely dessert that would be both beautiful and refreshing, making one wish for more. As I was perusing the produce at Berkeley Bowl West prior to the holiday my eye was caught by a display of crisp and firm, recently-picked brilliant red stalks of rhubarb. How could something so tart and sour be turned into an elegant desert without the bulk and heaviness of a rich piece of cake or pie at the end of an “abbondanza” meal?
My mind raced back to my childhood days when as kids we would pick long stalks of rhubarb from the immense perennial plants, each year becoming larger and more full than they were the year before. The juicy, tart stalks would evoke thoughts of warm double-crusted rhubard custard pies topped with rich vanilla ice cream, bowls of chilled rhubarb sauce… or jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam to slather over hot buttered toast.
Deep in thought I continued to slowly walk the produce aisles and picked up, in addition to several beautiful stalks of rosey red rhubarb for tartness, a large bunch of tarragon for herbaceous earthiness and a basket of plump juicy strawberries for a slight hint of sweetness. The frig contained plenty of heavy cream and there was a vanilla bean from Madagascar in the pantry waiting to be split. Dessert for the holiday feast would be a simple vanilla bean panna cotta with a clear sauce of fresh rhubarb, strawberries and tarragon. An elegant way to top the “foodie high holy day”…!
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Fresh Rhubarb, Strawberry and Tarragon Sauce
To a large saucepan over moderately high heat add:
4 C heavy cream
Chef’s Note: Neither eggs nor cream are used as thickening agents in this deliciously simple dish, so, should caloric content be an issue, half and half can be substituted for half or all of the cream. Note, however, that a slight difference in texture and taste will be introduced.
1/2 C granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
Chef’s Note: Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise with a sharp paring knife, scraping out the seeds and placing them in the pan with the cream. Add the split seed pod as well, for additional vanilla flavor.
Bring just to a boil and immediately turn off the heat,covering the pan with a lid:
Allow to steep for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place into a small bowl:
6 T chilled water
2 packets unflavored gelatin (4 1/2 tsp)
Sprinkle the gelatin over the surface of the water and allow to soften for 10 – 15 minutes.
Prepare an ice bath so that when the scaulded cream has steeped it can be strained through a fine sieve into a medium-sized bowl sitting in the prepared ice water bath. Strain the scaulded cream, discarding the solids:
While the cream is still hot immediately whisk in the softened gelatin and continue whisking until the mixture is well chilled and has taken on a glossiness:
Divide between 8 ramekins, wine glasses or a combination of both! Should you use ramekins, butter them lightly but thoroughly. Allow to chill a minimum of 4 hours or, preferably, overnight. Cover with film when refrigerated.
Chef’s Note: To unmold the ramekins simply place a sharp thin knife next to the inside edge of the ramekin and turn the ramekin… not the knife! This will ensure a smooth edge when the ramekin is then inverted onto a serving plate. If necessary, lightly tap the ramekin to unmold the panna cotta.
For the Fresh Rhubarb, Strawberry and Tarragon Sauce place in a medium to large sacepan over moderately high heat:
3 C coarsely chopped rhubarb
1 – 1/2 C sliced strawberries
3/4 bunch fresh tarragon
2 C granulated sugar
1 – 1/2 C water
Bring to a boil, stirring frequently and reduce:
When beginning to thicken add, to brighten the flavors:
a splash or two of balsamic vinegar
1 pinch of Kosher salt
Remove from the heat and stir well to combine. Strain through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth and discard the solids:
The sauce at this point will be tasty and delicious… but a bit thin for my preference. To objectively determine the body of the sauce I allowed it to chill overnight. If still too thin for your liking mix together:
2 T of the cold syrup
3/4 tsp unflavored gelatin
While the gelatin is dissolving heat the remaining sauce over low heat. Add the gelatin and heat without bringing to a boil. Place in an ice bath and whisk till cold. Transfer to a container and refrigerate till ready for use.
Chef’s Note: Should you discover that the sauce becomes gelatinized while in the refrigerator, which happened to me while I was developing the recipe, simply place the container in the microwave for about 30 seconds and allow it to stand at room temperature until use. It’ll be perfect! By the way, the amount of gelatin used above should work beautifully.
A wonderful garnish we discovered quite by accident and, incidently, fell in love with because of its tangy contrast to the subtleness of the dessert was the addition of a piece or two of rhubard slices simmered in sugar syrup for only a few minutes before they would normally begin to disintegrate into a soft sauce because of rhubarb’s high water content. It is magnificent! For an unexpected burst of flavor add a leaf or two of fresh tarragon to complete the garnish… not only lovely to look at but also delicious in its herbaceous addition!
Mix together in a small skillet or sauteuse:
3/4 C water
3/4 granulated sugar
splash of grenadine
splash of balsamic vinegar
desired number of rhubarb slices
Watch closely… these will begin to disintegrate in approximately 3 minutes! When that happens there is nothing that can be done other than to start the process over… well worth it, however, should you find yourself in such a situation! Remove from the pan, transfering them quickly, to a plate or small pan that can quickly be transfered to the refrigerator. Allow to chill well.
This magnificent dessert can be served without a sauce of any sort… it is delicious in its simplicity alone. However, there are many sauces that can be used to complement this lovely dessert… from berries to caramel. Bon Appetit!
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