Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What the heck is that? Rhubarb

The world of produce has some odd stuff. I’ve already written about some of the super-weird. This season brings a less exotic, but still-really-strange item: rhubarb.

Rhubarb’s leaves contain oxalic acid, which can be toxic. The edible bit is the stalk, like celery, but it’s most frequently used in pies. Is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable? The word “stalk” should indicate a vegetable, but a New York court  decided in 1947 that rhubarb was a fruit – at least for the purpose of regulation. (This was good news for rhubarb enthusiasts: the tariffs on imported fruits were lower than they were for vegetables.)

And rhubarb is tart. Hoo boy, is it tart. Antioxidant anthocyanins, which also give the rosy color and tart taste to sour cherries and peek-a-boo apples, are responsible. Prepare yourself to add a lot of sweetener in preparing rhubarb.

Typically, rhubarb is mostly green with a nice flush of crimson. Some varieties are also just pale green, which supposedly doesn’t affect the taste much, since even the reddest rhubarb is tart. This pile, for example, at the Union Square Greenmarket contained many stalks that were particularly green and celery-like in their appearance.


Of course, an adjoining pile of strawberries was green, too - perfect for folks with jaded palates who are tired of boring ripe strawberries.

But what to do with the rhubarb? You can make pies, cakes, sweet breads and slushies. Folks who like cutting the flavor of fatty meat with an acidic fruit love to use rhubarb in this way. Another customer at the Greenmarket bought over 7 pounds of rhubarb for this very purpose. "Use rhubarb for anything you'd use an orange or cranberry sauce," he advised.

As for me, every year when rhubarb season rolls in, I ponder ambitious plans and end up with the same thing: mess o'rhubarb. You can call it a compote, or a chunky summer soup. I find it bracing and refreshing. Do I need to add that it's really, really easy to make?

First, wash rhubarb well and trim the stalks' ends. If your rhubarb stalk has leaves, cut those killers off. (You'd need to eat about 11 pounds of leaves for a fatal result, but still.) Cut the rhubarb into a large dice. The size doesn't matter much - it's going to collapse very soon.

Next, add some sweetener - and some sweet fruit. (Raisins and dates are the most densely sweet potential additions; other fruits may vary in their contributions of sweetness.) How much sweetener? A good rule of thumb is about a tablespoon of sugar, or its equivalent, for every couple of stalks. You can always add more sweetener when you're done cooking if you think more is in order.

Here I've added strawberries and red grapes to keep the great crimson color.

Add a bit of water - a couple of tablespoons for a compote or stew consistency, more if you want soup or syrup. The rhubarb and other fruit will actually give off quite a bit of liquid. Let your pot come to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer.

And how long should you cook your rhubarb concoction? Around 5 - 6 minutes if you want the rhubarb to keep its shape.

Not what's going on here! I don't mind the disintegration.

And here it is, the mess o'rhubarb. Not the most photogenic dish I've ever made, but I enjoyed it.

I could cut back on the water and cooking time and call the final product compote.

I could add some chopped onion, vinegar and raisins to the compote recipe and call it rhubarb chutney.  

Next time I could even toss the rhubarb with a little sweetener, put it in a glass baking dish and bake it for a half hour or so at 350.

But for now I'll enjoy this odd "fruit" and the simple and messy method of cooking it that has become a tradition.

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