By Jay West
Mention fruit soups around here and a lot of people's eyes get misty. Somewhere in their first sentence is mention of Sweden, Norway, or Finland. But fruit soups are hardly unique to that part of the world. Some people simply refer to this as stewed fruit. Others make it sound more respectable with the Frenchified name, "compote." That's what this was called by both my dad's mother, Nana Inga, who was Swedish, and my mother's great Aunt Katherine (whose side of the family had mostly been here for many generations).
If you want to get technical about it, French-style compote is any kind of fruit poached in a vanilla-flavored "simple syrup." A simple syrup is sugar boiled until dissolved in water, typically using roughly 1 part sugar to roughly 3 parts water. (For example, Julia Child's recipe calls for 11/2 cups of sugar and 4 cups of water.) The vanilla flavoring is what makes a French style compote. A couple of generations back, however, not everybody had or used vanilla and a lot of people called any poached fruit a "compote." It was a handy way to deal with fruit that might not be ripe enough to eat raw (say, under-ripe pears) as well as fruits that couldn't be stored (like berries in the days before freezers), and it was something you could do when you got tired of plain fruit.
People used to put up compotes, as well. Compotes were at one end of the spectrum of preserves, jams, and jellies. Compotes used whole fruits, lightly poached them, and used the least amount of sugar. Cooked longer at a boil (rather than a simmering poach), you got preserves. Basically, you added a bit more sugar and cooked the fruit until some of it dissolved to give the liquid a jammy consistency. Jams cooked all the fruit to that consistency. Jellies cooked the fruits down completely, then pureed, strained and clarified it.
This recipe is a classic compote of strawberries and rhubarb. The basic difference between the recipe from Aunt Katherine and the one from my grandmother was that my grandmother used whole vanilla beans and vodka while Aunt Katherine usually used vanilla extract and white wine or vermouth in her recipe (the purpose of the alcohol--which mostly cooks off--is that it dissolves flavors into the soup so you don't have to cook the soup as long).
Rhubarb shows up in gardens hereabouts starting in May. I've still got some in my garden as I write this in July. You do know to avoid using the rhubarb leaves, right? They're toxic so just cut the whole thing--rib and all--off the stalk. Also, don't bother using the older, hollow stems. They're just too fibrous. Add them in this recipe and it's like adding shredded bamboo.
Strawberries are problematic. You used to be able to get local strawberries here in Red Lodge. (Viljo and Taijme Nygard had a farm down by Two-Mile Bridge). Sometimes, you can find local strawberries at farmer's markets. Mostly, though, we get lots of California and Chilean strawberries. These are bred for shipping and packing. That means they look good but usually taste no better than cardboard. If you don't have local strawberries to hand, I'd suggest getting one of the bags of frozen whole strawberries from the freezer section instead. Otherwise, I've found that the best way to deal with California strawberries is to hull them, dip the cut end in sugar and let them sit overnight (covered) in the fridge.
A big soup pot or saucepan. Any big pot with a non-reactive interior surface will do. The dish is just too acidic for plain cast iron or un-coated aluminum pots. (Anodized, enameled and nonstick surfaces are fine, though.) A blender or food processor is useful.
This soup can be an appetizer, a dessert or a sauce for ice cream or other desserts. My grandmother also made this into a punch which was called "The Devil's Rhubarb." You get the soup very cold, add a fifth of very cold vodka, and serve in small glasses. Be warned, a little bit of Devil's Rhubarb goes a very long way
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