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I never thought I’d say this, but two weeks away from home is actually a pretty long time! In that period, our tomato seedlings have grown by three inches, the dahlia and ranunculus bulbs have shot through the soil and we returned to find our roses in bloom. Considering that the MidWest was just entering spring as I left, it feels as if I’ve skipped a few weeks to head straight into summer back home.

What a whirlwind the past two weeks have been. First, there was news of this wonderful nomination (there’s still time to vote if you haven’t!!), tons of eating and skyscraper-gawking in Chicago, a little down time in Madison chilling with an old friend, then Chicago again for a last hurrah before finally, heading home! Throughout the whole time I was glued to Facebook, following the very exciting developments of the elections taking place in Singapore, while also taking stock of where I am – creatively and spiritually. Nothing quite like a long bus ride to provide just the right environment for pondering. There were many thoughts about the craft of photography, what it means to me and how my approach has evolved in the past five years. There has been some writing, and lots of reading – especially of this particular book, currently captivating the minds of Prune fans and food writing extraordinaires everywhere. Absolutely gripping in its raw poignancy, I was never given a moment to drift off and dream about opening a restaurant or spending summer holidays in Italy. Instead, it got me thinking about my own experiences with food and trying to understand what food really means to me, stripped of superlatives and food movement jargon. I’m still working through this one.

But first: the trip.

Chicago and Madison inspired and enriched in unexpected ways. It felt good to be back in a big city environment again. The sheer convenience of walking everywhere, of getting lost in the crowd, of not having to wait an hour for the next train left me giddy with delight. It brought out the urbanite in me, buried for the past three years in Silicon Valley suburbia, and sparked ‘What If’ thoughts of big city living. If it weren’t for their harsh, bone-cold winters, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Especially with the discovery of  Intelligentsia coffee that, sadly, puts San Francisco’s Blue Bottle in second place. Sorry Blue Bottlers, but Intelligentsia doles out a mean cappuccino, an achievement made even more significant after almost a week of bad, milky, espresso pours.

We traipsed through rain puddles on a walking tour of the city’s skyscrapers, on the tails of a very knowledgeable docent who I suspect is a former speed-walking champion. Thanks to our hosts, we popped into the Chicago Board of Trade building for a glimpse of an actual trading floor, trying to decipher hand signals for the buying and selling of soy/corn/wheat options. And we spent ages at Millennium Park, a really lovely urban space thanks to its inventive art works, like the Cloud Gate.

As fun as it was interacting with the sculpture, my biggest satisfaction was in observing the human reaction to it, which turned this giant piece of stainless steel into an art form that was truly dynamic.

The sights were just the tip of the iceberg. What really completed the trip were of course, the meals. Thanks to your recommendations for both Chicago and Madison, we ate very well. Even without a pit-stop at Alinea.

There was simply no need to go to that expense for a multi-course meal – at least not this time – when there were dining options like Blackbird ($22 for a 3-course lunch), bakeries like Floriole (for canneles and a seductive passionfruit curd tart) and hearty Polish food at Podhalanka (for potato pancakes and an episode of Wheel of Fortune with your meal).

Podhalanka Chicago

Pork Goulash and Potato Pancakes at Podhalanka

To balance out my grand urban ambitions and a heavily-carnivorous diet, Madison, in comparison, was a lot more about long conversations, serving as a 7-month-old’s trellis in his ambitions to stand, home-made chocolate chip cookies and strawberry rhubarb pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

In a sure sign that I am most definitely getting used to eating with the seasons, I think it wouldn’t be an understatement to admit that I’m well and truly in the rhubarb phase right now. I cannot explain my fascination with this thick, fuschia stem that delivers a tartness all its own in a pink gooey mess when cooked, but, fascinated I am. Perhaps it’s got to do with the fact that we can’t grow rhubarb in our climate: the more I need to work to find it, the more precious each stem becomes.

I have Blackbird’s Fennel Seed croissants with Rhubarb and Fennel compote to thank for triggering the start of this year’s obsession. This crumble is an ode to that meal, to the onset of spring and for friends well worth the time and distance to travel for.

Rhubarb Fennel Crumble

Rhubarb Fennel Crumble

Serves 4

Inspired by a dessert at Blackbird and this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, this crumble is best served on the day it’s made, topped, if you wish, with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

Ingredients

  • ¾ pound/338 grams chopped rhubarb
  • 5 ounces/ 135 grams chopped fennel (about half a large bulb)
  • 7 ounces/ 200 grams granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 7 ounces/ 188 grams all-purpose flour
  • 3 ounces/ 85 grams rolled oats
  • 3 teaspoons ground fennel seeds
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 stick/ 113 grams unsalted butter at room temperature

Directions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 375F/ 190C. Mix the rhubarb, fennel, sugar and 2 tablespoons flour in a bowl until each cube is completely coated with the flour-sugar mixture. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes while you prepare the crumble topping.
  2. In a medium-bowl, stir together the rest of the flour (7 ounces), oatmeal, ground fennel seeds and salt. Chop the butter into cubes and add to the dry ingredients.
  3. Using a pastry cutter or the tips of your fingers, toss the butter in the flour and rub them into tiny morsels. Continue until the butter is completely mixed and the flour resembles coarse cornmeal.
  4. Grease your baking dish then distribute the fennel-rhubarb mixture as evenly as possible, leaving a ½-inch gap from the top, then spoon the crumble topping over the vegetables, completely covering the filling.
  5. Place the dish on a baking tray and bake  for 45 minutes, or until slightly brown. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving – either on its own or with scoops of vanilla ice-cream.

Rhubarb

Pssst….there’s still some time left to vote for Beyond the Plate in Saveur Magazine’s 2011 Food Blog Awards. We’re finalists for the Best Food Photography and Best Original Dessert Recipe categories – you know that I’d really appreciate your vote!!

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Patricia Scarpin - Rhubarb crumble is one of the best things in life. So delicious and comforting… Extra nice when eaten under the blankets, watching a good movie. :)

Beautiful photos!

Kasey - It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to Chicago or Madison but your post makes me realize that it is time to start thinking about a trip there! So much good food, architecture, etc. I would NEVER think to put fennel in a crumble, but I bet it is one of those things you bite into and think, “oh….YES.”

Erica - This sounds INCREDIBLE and I have half a bulb of fennel sitting in my fridge! Thank you so much for this!

Julia - Yum! That sounds really good, and your pictures of Chicago are great, I never get sick of taking pictures by the bean and I’ve been wanting to go to Podhalanka!

lynette - I like rhubarb crumble. Never tried it with fennel before. Very interesting combination…….

Jeannie - Beautiful photos! and your pie looks incredibly delicious! Pity no rhubarb here and fennel are pretty expensive if available. I’ll just have to drool!

Felicia - Welcome home! Awesome photos of the city too!

Truffle - Great timing! I just had a beautiful rhubarb crumble on my weekend away and am glad to have a recipe to hand now. For an English slant, I can highly recommend a frothy custard to go with it too.

Chez Us - I have not been to Chicago in awhile, and now I have it on the brain. Great city photos. I would definitely love to explore it again. I do remember great architecture, as well as some wonderful parks. The food is pretty darn good as well!

I have a love hate relationship with rhubarb; I should definitely give it another chance as a crumble, with some beloved fennel. Sounds like the perfect relationship.

Welcome back!

kelsey (Happyolks) - Rhubarb and Fennel!? Love. What an intriguing combination! Will definitely need to give this a try :) I LOVE your blog by the way. So glad to have found you!

El - It’s been ages since I’ve been to Chicago. It looks like you had a great time and enjoyed some fantastic food. Great pictures too. Welcome home and thanks for the rhubarb recipe. Looks great!

OysterCulture - Love both cities, so glad you had fun. Your apple fennel crumble looks so enticing. I grew up with so much rhubarb that its very nostalgic for me. I’m going to have to try your recipe as soon as I get my hands on some.

Katherine - Fennel and rhubarb sounds like a delightful combination! I am still patiently waiting for rhubarb where I am, but as soon as it pops up this is the first recipe I am making!

Steph @Lick My Spoon - Welcome home! I’m sure it’s been a whirl wind since you’ve returned, but so glad you were able to have some good introspection/”recalibration” time ;) It is so important. And…of course, SO SO proud of you and your Saveur noms!

KYR - Timely post!Will actually be visiting windy city this weekend. Your endorsement has reminded us that we just have to check out Intellgentsia!

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Jessica - I love your photographs and your musings on food and photography. Thanks for sharing these cool pictures of your trip and these beautiful shots of your rhubarb recipe! I haven’t used any rhubarb yet this season and I think it’s time I do.

Danielle - Thanks everyone for your kind words! Chicago is definitely a city to return to, except between the months of November to March ;)

Montavilla Farmers Market | A Spring Recipe Roundup - [...] Rhubarb and Fennel Crumble [...]

Jerk Chicken & Snow Camping | Beyond [the Plate] - [...] hanging out with my very outdoorsy friends in Madison, I realized that we don’t do enough to take advantage of the beautiful outdoors that [...]

J2Kfm - Jumped here from Saveur. Great site, and indeed the stories are so real, and interesting. Keep it up.

mycookinghut - I love crumble, especially with rhubarb!

esvee - I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for ages, waiting for the return of spring. Looking it over, I noticed that the ingredients list calls for two different quantities of flour, and the instructions reference flour twice, but it’s not clear when to use the 2 tbsp vs. the 7 ounces.

Could you clarify? Thanks!

Danielle - Thanks for pointing this out – I’ve edited the recipe for clarity. Use the 2 tablespoons of flour in step 1, and the 7 ounces of flour in step 2. I hope it helps!

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