I’m so in love with rhubarb that I just have to write more about it. Plus, I found a lovely crop of rhubarb in the produce section of my local grocery store, so I am gratefully eating more of it.
One aspect of rhubarb I really appreciate is that it’s one of the few fruits (or vegetables — I’ll get to that in a minute) that still seems tied to a season.
These days, when you can buy asparagus for Thanksgiving dinner, raspberries at New Years and watermelon before it’s even spring, it’s rare to find something more-or-less limited to its original season. Maybe there’s just not enough demand to supply greenhouse rhubarb all year long, but in any case, limited availability only heightens rhubarb’s appeal.
It’s an especially welcome sight here in the Pacific Northwest, especially as California’s navel oranges season is winding down, and it’s still too early for local berries.
Well, what is rhubarb after all — fruit or vegetable?
It all depends. Botanically it’s a vegetable. But in 1947, the U.S. Customs Court at Buffalo, NY., ruled that rhubarb was a fruit, since that’s how it’s usually eaten.
The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that the plant is native to Asia, and thrived in the cold climates of Mongolia, Siberia and the vicinity of the Himalayas. It was used medicinally in ancient Greece, Rome and China, and the 12th century Jewish Egyptian physician, Ibn Jumay, wrote a treatise on its medicinal uses.
The rhubarb plant arrived in Europe around the 14th century, but it took a few more centuries before it was commonly used in cooking — mainly with sugar added. Then there were rhubarb tarts, with or without custard, rhubarb crisps and crumbles, and rhubarb fools ( rhubarb puree with sweetened whipped cream, layered like a parfait, resulting in a very pretty sight). And rhubarb sauces, compotes and jams.
Not all rhubarb dishes are sweet. There’s a classic Persian recipe for lamb with a rhubarb-mint sauce. And I’ve read that in Poland, rhubarb is cooked with potatoes. Italians make a rhubarb aperitif called rabarbaro that has low alcohol content and is considered a health drink. Anyone tried any of these?
After my last rhubarb post, Paula Butturini sent me a suggestion about adding a teaspoon or so of finely chopped fresh rosemary to rhubarb as it cooks. “You don’t actually taste the rosemary, but it somehow deepens the flavor,” she wrote. I tried it in a batch of stewed rhubarb (which is delicious as a sauce for yogurt or ice cream or served atop the steel-cut oats) and it’s true. Thanks, Paula. Other classic flavors that complement rhubarb are orange zest and ginger.
Mark Bittman had a nice recipe for rhubarb crisp the other day (and also for rhubarb chutney). Since I’d already made my must-have rhubarb pie of the season, I thought I’d bake a crisp. It’s so easy to make any kind of fruit crisp — just take a little butter and rub in some flour and brown sugar, flavor with cinnamon or other spices, and work in some rolled oats–and nuts, if you like. Rhubarb doesn’t need much sugar in this case, because the topping is sweet.
There was just one problem — I was dining solo and knew I’d eat way too much of a delicious crisp if I made a whole pan. So I confined myself to a miniature version in a small baking dish.
For each ramekin or one-size serving, slice thinly two stalks of rhubarb with just a couple teaspoons of sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice and some grated orange peel and put in the bottom of the dish.
Make the topping starting with about a little under a tablespoon of butter (I’m sorry, but I just don’t measure these. Probably about 1 or 2 tablespoons of flour and 3 or 4 tablespoons brown sugar, as much cinnamon as you like and a couple tablespoons of oats) You really don’t need a food processor — just rub this mixture together with your fingers until it resembles crumbs and sprinkle it atop the rhubarb. That’s it.
Bake at 350 degrees until the rhubarb is soft and the crisp is….crisp.
It’s said that people especially love rhubarb in Zurich, where everyone grows it in their family garden. I was very happy to find a delightful blog called My Kugelhopf by Kerrin Rousset, a French-speaking New Yorker who lives in Zurich. She has recipes for rhubarb-berry crumble and rhubarb-roll-ups, and gorgeous photos of her travels and quest for delicious sweets.
Back to the history: I was surprised to learn that early varieties of rhubarb had green stalks — growers selected those with a tinge of red to develop our modern red varieties. And color is not related to sweetness: some green varieties are sweeter than the red ones. Then again, we’re not buying rhubarb for its sweetness anyway. That cheerful rosy color, on the other hand, seems essential to our pleasure in the veggie-fruit.
Want to know more about rhubarb? You can find out most everything you ever wanted to know about its botany, varieties, growing techniques and history, along with recipes, at the Rhubarb Compendium.
So, I know I just gave you some great links which may lead you elsewhere into the blog universe, but before you go, take a minute to leave a comment or memory about rhubarb below. Or consider whether rhubarb crisp could be (or should be?) eaten for breakfast. I’d love to hear from you!