Thursday, May 11, 2017

Featured Ingredient: Rhubarb

I’m not sure that if rhubarb could only grow in tropical or sub-tropical climates that anyone would bother to eat it. It may simply be this bold plant’s early emergence from the cold ground in regions that have just endured a frigid, fruitless season that gives it a chance to be a culinary darling of spring.  I know I start peeking at the ground in the sunny spot next to the shed in my back yard as soon as the dirt seems mostly thawed. The first homely knob of proto-leaf and stem poking through the soil has me digging through my recipe files for the next rhubarb recipe to try.

These thick, super-sour stems (the leaves are poisonous, so don’t eat them) need a bit of doctoring to make them palatable, although I remember dipping stalks in a bowl of sugar before crunching on them when I was a little girl. The good news is that something very simple to make, such as a stewed sauce, can be very, very good, and rhubarb goes well with many fruits as well as warm seasonings, such as cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger.

My first cuttings of rhubarb usually go into a sauce, such as this one with vanilla and brown sugar. When good strawberries are available, I make this Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce.

And since rhubarb grows all summer long, I make this delicious one with blueberries when the occasion calls for it.

Take a little more time with sauce and it’s jam. I like to make this Strawberry Rhubarb Freezer Jam, and, though it has been a while since I’ve been able to make them, the Bluebarb Jam (blueberry-rhubarb) and Gingered Rhubarb Jam with Honey in The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard are very good. (Both are canned jams.)

Rhubarb pie is probably the most common use of rhubarb historically. Apparently, rhubarb has often been called “pie plant,” although I’ve never heard anyone call it that myself. Whatever you want to call it, it’s great in this Rhubarb Custard Pie, which is big and rich.

It’s also great in simpler creations like Rhubarb Ginger Galette and Berry and Rhubarb Galette.

Two other rhubarb desserts I love are Rhubarb Custard Bars, which are quite different from Rhubarb Custard Pie,

And this crumb-topped Rhubarb Yogurt Cake is a simple coffee cake that’s good for breakfast and afternoon snacks.

While I absolutely love rhubarb in sweet settings, it has some delicious savory applications as well. This Rhubarb Barbecue Sauce, which is chunky and sweet-tart, behaves sort of like a chutney.

I’ve also seen savory recipes in which rhubarb plays the same role as tamarind, providing an exotic tartness in a lentil stew, for example. I hope to try such a recipe this year and tell you how it goes.

Since rhubarb is quite prolific and grows in my yard with no effort on my part, I’ll be equipped with plenty of it to revisit my favorite recipes and try new ones - like upside down cake, old fashioned pudding cake, and rhubarb-lemon cookies! - all spring and summer long! I hope you like it too!

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