Until I left the far-north Shetland Isles to go to college in Glasgow, I believed rhubarb to be the single most delicious item that came from our overgrown garden. Sure, in spring we had buttery lettuces, peppery radishes and sweet baby carrots -- all of which my brothers and I didn't hesitate to pull out of the earth, wipe the dirt off on our pants and devour as a snack whenever we felt like it.
But our favorite was the crimson rhubarb stalks. We ripped off the enormous fans of moss-green leaves (which we'd been warned were poisonous), ran into the kitchen and in between bites, rammed the stalk into the sugar bowl, coating it with a thick crust. Not a dentist's delight, but what a punchy contrast of sweet and sour -- and we loved it!
Rhubarb is thought of by many people as the "pie plant" But in Britain, it is not confined to pies, and is thus transformed into dozens of tantalizingly delicious dishes. It may be poached in a vanilla-scented sugar syrup as a compote or made into a piquant sauce to spoon over fish or meats.
Unlike here in the United States, it is rarely combined with strawberries, as in strawberry-rhubarb pie. Sadly, these pie fillings contain barely a trace of rhubarb, the flavor being masked by inordinate amounts of sugar.
Forgive me, strawberry-rhubarb pie lovers! I'm not belittling these pies, where the crust may be melt-in-the-mouth and the filling bursting with plump berries bathed in a rosy sauce. In farmers' markets and bakeries, these pies represent the harbingers of spring, and shoppers purchase them as soon as they appear on the counter.
Indeed, rhubarb is one of the first edibles to appear in springtime. It's commonly looked on as a fruit; however, as a close relative of sorrel (which has a distinctly sour taste) and a member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb is classified as a vegetable.
The leaves contain oxalic acid and are highly toxic. If you buy rhubarb with the leaves still on, cut them off and discard them. Originally, rhubarb was cultivated in Asia more than 2,000 years ago, and was prized not for cooking but for its medicinal qualities. Throughout the centuries, this caused the price to rise.
In 1542, in France, rhubarb sold for ten times the price of cinnamon, and in England in 1657, it sold for more than twice the price of opium.
Across the Atlantic, in America, rhubarb was introduced by an unnamed gardener in Maine who'd brought over root stock from Europe. It became so popular that by the spring of 1822, rhubarb had become a sought-after item sold in village markets, grown in backyards and cooked up in Colonial kitchens.
Housewives used it to make pies, cobblers, preserves, cakes and something called "shrubs" (sweet juice spiked with liquor.) However, cookbooks like the early Joy of Cooking noted that "only by the wildest stretch of the imagination can rhubarb be included in this [fruit] chapter but its tart flavor ... makes it a reasonable facsimile when cooked with other fruit." That comment is probably what influenced later cooks to combine strawberries and rhubarb together.
Rhubarb appears in our local markets as early as January, and continues to be stocked through April and into May. Look for stalks that are crisp and flat, not curled or limp. If leaves are attached, cut off and discard. Do not peel the stalks. They are high in vitamin C and dietary fiber.
To store, wrap loosely in plastic wrap and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to one week.
As rhubarb is highly acidic, even with the addition of sugar, cook it only in non-aluminum pots. To freeze, cut stalks into pieces, toss in a little sugar and place in a freezer bag, squeezing out the air.
My Mother's Stewed Rhubarb
This compote, studded with golden raisins, can be served as is, or puddled onto a dish of creamy rice pudding.
1 lb. (4-5 stalks) rhubarb
1/2 cup sugar or to taste
1/3 cup orange juice
2 Tbsps. ginger preserves
1/4 cup golden raisins, packed
Wash and wipe the rhubarb stalks.
With a sharp knife, cut in slices about 1/2 -inch thick. Set aside.
In a medium pot, place the sugar and orange juice. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Simmer 1 minute.
Add the raisins. Stir to mix.
Stir in the rhubarb. Bring to simmer.
Partially cover and cook 25 minutes, or until rhubarb is tender. Taste syrup.
Stir in additional sugar, if desired.
Best served at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 108; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 28 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 4 mg.
(Pareve or Dairy)
prepared pastry sheets for a two-crust pie
2 cups plus 2 Tbsps. sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
6 cups rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 Tbsps. apple jelly, melted
1 Tbsp. margarine or butter
additional sugar to sprinkle (optional)
Preheat oven to 425°.
Line a deep, 9-inch pie dish with one pastry sheet. Set aside.
In a bowl, stir together the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Stir in the rhubarb.
Spoon into the pastry-lined pie dish. Drizzle the apple jelly over top, and dot with butter or margarine. Brush the pastry edges with water.
Place the remaining pastry sheet on top of rhubarb mixture. Press to seal, marking edges all around with a fork.
Cut three slits in the center for steam to escape. Brush with water and sprinkle with a little sugar (optional).
Cover the edges with a 2-inch strip of tin foil to prevent too much browning.
Bake for 50 minutes, or until crust turns golden-brown and juices are bubbling through the slits. Remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 332; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 61 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 182 mg.
Serve this with poultry, meat or fish dishes.
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. allspice
11/4 tsps. cinnamon
1 tsp. whole cloves
3/4 tsp. celery seeds
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 Granny Smith apple, unpeeled and chopped
2 cups rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 cup dried, sweetened cranberries
In a heavy saucepan over high heat, combine the sugar, vinegar, water, spices and celery seeds.
Bring to a rolling boil, stirring often. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the onion, apple and rhubarb.
Reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. The onion should be soft and the rhubarb look like it's starting to break down.
Stir in the cranberries. Bring to simmer.
Cook 15 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Mixture should be thick. If not, simmer 10 minutes longer.
Pour into hot sterilized jars or refrigerate up to 3 weeks.
Makes 2 pints.
Approximate nutrients per 1/4 cup: calories, 81; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 20 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 6 mg.
A "fool" is an old-fashioned English dessert of puréed fruit and whipped cream. Serve in small glasses with a ginger or lemon-iced cookie on the side.
3 cups rhubarb, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
3/4 cup sugar plus to taste
1 Tbsp. finely chopped, crystallized ginger
1 large ripe banana, thinly sliced
1 cup light sour cream
Place the rhubarb, sugar, ginger and 2 tablespoons water in a medium pot.
Stir and bring to simmer over medium heat.
Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook 15 minutes, or until rhubarb is breaking up. Stir often.
Add the banana. Purée in the food processor.
Pour into a bowl and chill.
Whisk in the sour cream. If desired, add sugar to taste.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 224; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 44 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 21 mg; sodium, 27 mg.
In addition to a tray of muffin tins, use miniature soufflé baking dishes or custard baking cups for the extra batter. These are best eaten the day they are baked, or slice and serve them toasted with your morning coffee.
11/4 cups brown sugar, packed
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
21/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 cups rhubarb, diced
1/4 cup candied citrus peel
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 375°.
Spray a tray of 12 muffin tins and three miniature soufflé baking dishes with nonstick cooking spray.
In a bowl, beat together the egg, sugar, buttermilk and oil.
Make a well in center. Stir in the flour, mixing well.
Add the cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda, stirring to mix.
Lastly fold in the rhubarb, citrus peel and walnuts.
Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and miniature baking dishes, filling them three-quarters full.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until risen and firm in center.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 15 muffins.
Approximate nutrients per muffin: calories, 182; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 18 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 15 mg; sodium, 118 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. E-mail her at: [email protected] .