There are a wide variety of sauces made from the delightful combination of fruit and sugar. They differ in the details of their construction, in whether they are blended or strained, in whether pectin is added, in whether they are shelf-stable, and in how snooty they sound when spoken of outside the confines of a restaurant. My favorites are the simplest, the ones that are not sealed in sterilized mason jars or plumped with added pectin, because I am very lazy and also because my favorite summertime drink, the spritzer, requires them.
Typically, jarred sauces like jams, preserves, and marmalades are made at the end of the harvest season, in the fall, in an attempt to secure the glut of perishable items for the hard winter ahead. Though we have barely begun the warm-eating season, springtime is actually a good candidate for sauce-making as well, because the produce of the springtime is so short-lived and delicate.
Jams, jellies, marmalades, and preserves (usually) are all made with added pectin, a gelling agent that’s naturally found in lots of different fruits (especially apples). But today I’m going to talk about the easier, faster cousins of jams and preserves: syrups and compotes. These are done without pectin and are often made at the same time as whatever dish you’re going to put them on (for example, you might be making pancakes while a fruit compote cooks next to it). I like this because I am a terrible planner and am constantly forgetting to prepare things ahead of time.
The fruit slurries that I’m going to talk about today are essentially modified simple syrups — which are nothing more than dissolved sugar in water. The viscosity can be messed with either by increasing the sugar to water ratio or just by cooking it longer, which will cause more of the water to evaporate, thus making the syrup thicker. Simple syrups can be “infused” with various flavors, like spices and aromatics.
Depending on the precise way you prepare these infused syrups, you can end up with a few different results. Candied or glacé fruit is the most extreme: you let fruits — often bitter ones with substantial pith like citron — sit in a warm simple syrup base for an absurdly long period of time, like days or even weeks, before straining out the fruit. This is a preservation method; the sugar pulls water out of the interior of the fruit which makes it difficult for nasty microbes to move in and spoil it. It also basically turns any fruit, even stuff that is barely edible, into candy.
Compote is a bit less extreme, with fruit cooked in simple syrup for long enough to begin to break down the fruit — more like thirty minutes. Coulis is a more vague term but can include a compote that’s been pureed or pushed through a fine-mesh strainer. And infused syrups are the easiest: Cook something in simple syrup to get all the flavor out of that something, then strain out and discard the something.
Infused syrups are very trendy to use in cocktails, but I am not into cocktails. What I AM into is seltzer, and I spend most of the summer drinking some kind of fancy infused seltzer, which is basically homemade soda (when I was a kid these were called “Italian sodas”). Make a relatively thin infused syrup, keep it in some kind of container in your fridge (preferably glass; plastic storage containers will, as always, kill us all someday), and pour it over ice with seltzer. Drink outside while the sun beats down on your refreshed, happy head.
That said! The specific type of seltzer is a distinct variable here. I use a Sodastream, which is not a particularly strong machine; you need to basically disregard the instructions entirely if you’re going to make seltzer strong enough to stand up to a syrup like these. Sodastream tells you to hit the pump until you get three loud buzzes for average-fizz seltzer, which is a lie, and five buzzes for strong seltzer for syrups, which is an even worse lie. I use somewhere between eight and eleven buzzes for this kind of spritzer. Another tip: the water needs to be as cold as possible before carbonating. If you can keep the bottle of water in the fridge overnight before carbonating, that’s best, because even the coldest water from the best faucet is not quite ideal.
The amount of syrup you use is up to both personal taste and the viscosity of the syrup you make; a thin syrup might require nearly a 1:1 ratio of seltzer to syrup, but once you get towards the very thick ones that are nearly the viscosity of maple syrup, you’ll need much less syrup. I prefer somewhere in the middle, because seltzer is very cold and it is hard to mix thick syrups with very cold liquid.
Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family — buckwheat being, confusingly, not a wheat at all. It looks like a Martian celery stalk and it’s one of the first bits of produce to show up in farmers markets each spring. It isn’t incredibly popular beyond the strawberry-rhubarb pie (which, okay, is maybe the best fruit pie of all), and that is because of its extreme sourness; it is very very rarely used in savory applications, though I think you could probably make a killer barbecue sauce out of it. I don’t mess with it much because preparing rhubarb is normally labor-intensive and, again, I am very lazy. But rhubarb syrup is something else. It bridges the gap between sweet and sour; though there is no vinegar added, rhubarb-syrup-based sauces have a lot in common, flavor-wise, with classic sweet-and-sour sauces like gastriques, agrodolces, and the very trendy (in shithead Brooklyn, at least) drinking vinegars. Getting the balance right takes practice, but the raw ingredients are cheap and the basic idea is really very simple, consisting of nothing more than throwing chopped rhubarb in a pot of water and sugar. The basic syrup will last in your fridge for a few weeks; if you make a compote or anything else that has the actual vegetable or fruit in it, use within a week.
Shopping list: Rhubarb, white sugar, water
This recipe will vary based on the tartness of your rhubarb, but it’s easy to adjust: start with a conservative estimate of sugar and add more as needed. Select firm, bright stalks of rhubarb. Chop into chunks the way you would celery. Put four cups of chopped rhubarb, a cup of water, and a cup of sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for about half an hour until the rhubarb is completely soft. Strain out the rhubarb; I use a double-fine mesh strainer but cheesecloth would work fine as well. Toss the rhubarb in the garbage and keep the liquid.
If you’re planning on using it in seltzer, you’re done. If you want it to be thicker, for use on, say, pancakes (this is very good!!!) add a bit more sugar and cook over low heat until it’s almost but not quite the texture of maple syrup, skimming off any foam that appears. A neat trick I got from David Lebovitz is to use corn syrup instead of sugar in this last step; corn syrup prevents the rhubarb syrup from developing any sugar crystals. It’s unhealthy but, like, so is the cup of sugar you added half an hour ago so whatever, you know?
Rhubarb-Basil Compote With Buckwheat Crêpes And Yogurt
Shopping list: Rhubarb, fresh basil, white sugar, water, buckwheat flour, eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, almonds, vegetable oil
Put a cup of water and a cup of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. While it’s boiling, chop four cups of rhubarb, and toss it in once the syrup begins to boil. Lower the heat to low and cook for about twenty minutes until the rhubarb is soft. When done, turn off the heat and stir in a few leaves of chopped basil.
Mix a cup of buckwheat flour, an egg, a pinch of salt, and a cup of milk together to form a batter. If you want to use some sort of machine to do this (food processor, standing mixer) that would be much easier than doing it by hand. Let it sit for maybe twenty minutes to get all the bubbles out.
In a pan over medium heat, toss in a tablespoon of white sugar and stir, then quickly add a handful of almonds and a pinch of salt. Stir and toss for a few minutes to toast the almonds and get a little burnt sugar caramelization on them. Remove, let cool, and chop into large-ish pieces. Mix the Greek yogurt with a little honey just to take the sharp edge off it.
Get a saute pan going over medium-high heat and add a little bit of vegetable oil, no more than a couple teaspoons. Grab the handle of the pan and lift it off the heat, then ladle in maybe a half cup of the crêpe batter and quickly tilt it so the batter swirls over the entire pan in a thin layer. Put it back on the stove and watch it closely. Cook it for maybe thirt seconds then quickly flip it and cook for another few seconds, then put it on a plate and repeat until all the batter is gone.
Roll the crêpes loosely. Spoon the compote over them, then the yogurt, in some kind of artistic way which I am positive is possible but which I have never managed. Sprinkle the almonds over the top and serve.
Rhubarb is one of the very few spring items that’s available now, but these recipes would work just fine with any fruit and some vegetables; when strawberries appear at the market, pop those in or even add them along with the rhubarb. Same with peaches, apples, apricots, plums, blueberries, or, really, anything else. You’ll have to adjust the sugar level to account for the sugar content of each fruit. Strawberries, apples, grapes, and blueberries are very sweet and need hardly any sugar; most stone fruits and any citrus will need a little sugary assistance. But it’s worth the trouble, especially when you’re pouring homemade blackberry compote over vanilla ice cream and someone says “where’d you get that jam?” and you can yell “actually” at them until you both pass out.
Photo by K.B.R.