Get ready for rhubarb

Like a start flag on race day, the vibrant pinkish-red stalks hitting store…

Get ready for rhubarb 1

Like a start flag on race day, the vibrant pinkish-red stalks hitting store shelves and farmers markets this spring signal to rhubarb lovers, “Get cooking because rhubarb season is short!” (Depending on our undependable weather, that season should run from late April to June.)

Mouth puckeringly sour and astringent bits of rhubarb threaded into sweet pies and creamy desserts are a tongue tingler. Rhubarb pairs beautifully with many sweet fruits. Strawberry-rhubarb anything is delightful, though raspberries and other berries, apples, pears and citrus fruits work well, too. But this vegetable (yes, it’s a vegetable in that Freaky Friday kind of way that tomatoes are fruit) also adds punch to savory dishes.

Wildly popular here in the 19th and 20th Centuries, nutrient-rich rhubarb has been thought to have medicinal properties. Michigan has long been a top producer of rhubarb.

“There used to be a lot of rhubarb growing in Detroit,” says Richard Andres, co-owner and head farmer at Tantre Farm in Chelsea. “The farms in the city were abandoned for industrial development, but rhubarb, which is a perennial, continued to grow wild there. In the 1930s, my dad would go to the abandoned farms, pick rhubarb and sell it on the street.”

Over time, other factors reduced rhubarb usage — wartime rationing made cooks tight fisted with sugar. And, as expanded supply chains and highway infrastructure increased distribution of citrus fruit, consumers found more ways to satisfy their sour tooth.

But rhubarb is having a bit of a renaissance these days with interest in local and seasonal foods on the rise, as is demand for sour and bitter flavors in food and beverages.

“What we love about rhubarb is how it is essentially a vegetable masquerading as a fruit, and, as it comes so early in the year, it is really cause for delight,” say Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson, owners of Towpath Cafe in London. “The brightness of the color. The tartness of the flavor. It’s quite fun to cook with if you never have before. Poach it and put it on yogurt with granola.”

 Choosing rhubarb

Early season rhubarb has maximum favor. Select stalks that are medium in size, firm and ruby colored. Green stalks tend to be extra sour.

Storing. Wrapped in a damp towel, rhubarb will keep for about a week in the fridge. Or chop rhubarb that’s at its peak into one inch stalks and freeze them for future use. Rhubarb can also be frozen as a sauce.

Using rhubarb

“I generally pair rhubarb with richer flavors to balance out the acidity,” says Abra Berens, chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks Michigan and author of “Ruffage.” “I love it with pork or duck or with anything creamy like ice cream or custards.”

Discard the leaves — they’re poisonous. One wag calls them the blowfish of the vegetable world.

Rhubarb stalks, especially those that have a thicker wall, can be stringy. Long-simmering can break them down but removing the strings with a paring knife produces a smoother texture.

Beverages. Boil chopped rhubarb with sugar and water, then strain and refrigerate the syrup to add to sodas, cocktails, lemonade and iced tea.

Sweet and savory condiments/sauces/marinades. Think jams, preserves, compotes, chutneys, relishes, pickles, rhubarb ketchup, etc.

Vegetable dishes. Cut rhubarb into coins and add them to vegetable dishes to punch up flavor. Julienne rhubarb finely to add color and seasonality to salads.

Desserts. Pies, natch. But also bars, cookies, crumbles, cobblers, cookies, panna cottas, and cheesecake. Use cardamom and hibiscus to enhance rhubarb’s flavor in desserts.

Soups. Rhubarb is excellent in chilled soups, such as the Rhubarb and Chinese Pear Soup, a signature dish at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Want immediate gratification? Dip rhubarb stalks in sugar and happily munch away.

Raw Rhubarb Relish

½ pound   rhubarb, trimmed and washed

½ cup  candied ginger

1  orange, zested and juiced

1 tablespoon  honey

¼ teaspoon   Chinese 5-spice powder

2 pinches  salt

¼ cup  olive oil

Thinly slice the rhubarb. Cut the ginger into slivers. Toss all the ingredients together and let rest at room temperature for an hour before serving. Refrigerate any unused portions.

Recipe courtesy of Abra Berens.

Citrus Cheesecake with Rhubarb Lattice 

2 cups   graham crackers, crushed

½ cup   unsalted butter, melted

¾ cup   sugar

24 ounces   low fat cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons  flour

1 teaspoon   vanilla

3    eggs, beaten

¼ cup grapefruit juice

4 stalks    rhubarb, shaved into long strips

½ cup   sugar

1 cup   water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together the graham crackers and melted butter, then press into a 9 inch springform pan with a removable bottom. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, combine ¾ cup of sugar, the cream cheese, flour and vanilla until smooth. Add the eggs one by one, followed by the juice. When the batter is smooth, pour it into the prepared pan.

Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool.

In a wide saute pan, heat the remaining ½ cup sugar and water. When it becomes syrupy, add the strips of rhubarb and simmer until soft, but not disintegrating. Remove and cool on a wire-topped tray. On a 9 inch circle of parchment paper, form a lattice using the rhubarb strips. When complete, flip onto the top of the cooled cheesecake. Trim the edges and serve.

Recipe and photo courtesy of The Markon Cooperative.

Poached Rhubarb with Blood Orange

26 ounces  fresh rhubarb, leaves trimmed and discarded

1    lemon

4    blood oranges*

6  bay leaves

Handful   black peppercorns

1  cinnamon stick

4  whole allspice berries

4  star anise

½   vanilla pod, seeds scraped**

2 sprigs   fresh rosemary

9 ounces  sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Rinse the rhubarb and cut it into 2 inch pieces. (Since the rhubarb stalks may be of different thicknesses, make sure the pieces are cut into similar sizes to make for even cooking.) Place in a 13×9 baking dish.

Juice the lemon, cut the peel into wide strips and add both to the baking dish. Juice the blood oranges, cut the peel of 2 of them into wide strips and add to the rhubarb mixture. (Refrigerate the remaining 2 orange peels for future use.) Add the bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick, allspice berries, star anise, vanilla seeds or extract and rosemary to the baking dish. Pour the sugar over all and toss lightly to coat the fruit and the rhubarb.

Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake until the rhubarb is soft, but not falling apart. This could take 30 to 60 minutes, so check after 20 minutes.

*Juice oranges may be substituted if blood oranges aren’t available.

**Or use 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Recipe adapted with permission from “Towpath: Recipes & Stories” by Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson.

Aunt Emma’s Rhubarb Custard Dessert

For the crust

2 cups   all-purpose flour

½ cup  unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons   sugar

For the filling

2 cups  sugar

1 cup  heavy whipping cream

¼ cup  all-purpose flour

6  yolks from large eggs

¼ teaspoon   salt

5 cups   fresh rhubarb*, chopped

For the meringue

6  whites from large eggs

1 teaspoon  vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon   salt

¾ cup  sugar

*Or 2 pounds frozen chopped rhubarb, thawed and drained.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine all the crust ingredients in a bowl. Using a mixer, beat at low speed, scraping the bowl often, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press onto bottom of ungreased 13×9-inch baking pan. Bake for 7 minutes.

Combine all filling ingredients except the rhubarb in a mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping the bowl often, until smooth. Stir in the rhubarb.

Pour the filling over the hot, partially baked crust. Continue baking for 40 to 55 minutes or until the filling is firm to the touch.

Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites at low speed until foamy. Add the vanilla and salt. Increase mixer speed to high; beat, gradually adding the sugar, until the mixture is glossy and stiff peaks form.

Spread the meringue over the hot filling, spreading to the edge to form a seal. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until the meringue is lightly browned. Cool completely before serving.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Land O’Lakes.

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