Rhubarb and Cucumber Caprese

After months of calming my mind and palate with familiar comfort dishes – creating a soothing counterpart to the uncertainties in the world – I suddenly feel a growing appetite for kitchen experiments again. Pizza, spaghetti Bolognese, German stews and roasts, and yes, baking sourdough bread, gave me comfort and safety while the world turned upside down and pulled me off my feet. But I recently started to feel curious and hungry again, searching and finding a refreshing caprese salad with pickled rhubarb, orange blossom water, cucumber, mozzarella di bufala and mint.

As I leaved through Marc Diacono’s fabulous new book, Sour, which was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, I immediately stopped on page 147 as I spotted a vibrant pink Rhubarb and Radish Salad. Marc uses raw rhubarb that he cuts very thinly and marinates in rose water. That made me think. I always cook, bake or roast rhubarb and wasn’t quite sure if I’d fall in love with its distinct taste and texture when raw. The British cookbook author adds blue cheese and dill and this, in combination with the rose water, wraps it up snugly. It’s sour, it’s bold and somehow harmonic, or in Marc’s words: “The rose water sets everything off and encourages the radish and rhubarb to sit a little closer together while retaining their independence.”

So I asked myself, would that also work with orange blossom water? And what about quickly pickling the rhubarb first and adding crisp cucumber and a hint of fresh mint? I find blue cheese too strong for cucumber but a creamy mozzarella di bufala or Burrata would work. All of a sudden I had a very unusual caprese salad in front of me that had all the crispness, sourness and excitement that I was hoping for. To be fair, one can only truly appreciate this unorthodox caprese variation if one loves sour and is up for having some fun with an Italian classic. I have a Winter Caprese with Blood Orange, Beet and Mozzarella di Bufala in my 365 book and when I came up with that recipe I understood that a) a good mozzarella di bufala and especially Burrata can deal with strong flavors and b) playing with a traditional recipe is a good way to keep tradition alive.

Rhubarb and Cucumber Caprese

Serves 2

  • 1 slim rhubarb stalk (around 60g / 2 ounces), trimmed and thinly sliced with a mandoline slicer or sharp knife
  • 60ml / 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 60ml / 1/4 cup orange blossom water (or freshly squeezed orange juice)
  • flaky sea salt
  • 1 small / Persian cucumber (with skin, rinsed), thinly sliced with a mandoline slicer or sharp knife
  • 125g / 4.5 ounces mozzarella di bufala or Burrata
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • crushed or coarsely ground black peppercorns
  • 4-6 fresh (young) mint leaves, very finely sliced

Transfer the rhubarb to a medium, heat-resistant bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt to a boil. Stir in the orange blossom water, keep it on the heat just until it starts boiling then pour over the rhubarb and let sit for about 1 hour. You will use the rhubarb and the pickling liquid for the caprese salad.

Quicker but less satisfying: In a small bowl, mix the rhubarb with 2 tablespoons of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of orange blossom water, 1 teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt and let sit for 10 minutes. The texture will be tougher and not as crisp compared to the properly pickled rhubarb described above.

Spread the cucumber and 1/3 of the pickled rhubarb on a large plate, adding more rhubarb once you tasted it, and arrange the mozzarella in the middle. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons of the pickling liquid and 2 tablespoons of orange juice then drizzle over the salad. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with a little salt, pepper and mint (mind that the mint is very powerful!). Taste and add more of the pickling liquid if you prefer more of a sour note. Enjoy the salad immediately.