The tomato, as any fifth grader will be happy to tell you, seems like a vegetable but is actually, botanically, a fruit. Rhubarb is just the opposite. A vegetable (related to sorrel and buckwheat), rhubarb is used - and thought of - as a fruit. Indeed, in the late 1940s, a U.S. Customs Court ruled it to be a fruit, for trade purposes. But if you are a rhubarb lover, you put the green-red stalks in a class by themselves: the first taste of spring; a gift from Mother Earth; the palate's tangy wake-up call.
Strawberries and rhubarb are a classic combination in a classic fruit cobbler. Photo credit: Photograph by Marialisa Calta
It was not until the late 17th century that "culinary rhubarb" - a variety distinct from the medicinal strains - was developed and people learned (quickly, one hopes) that the leaves were toxic (they contain oxalic acid) and that the stalks were the part that should be used for cooking. (The stalks, writes Kitchen, also contain oxalic acid but in harmless quantities.) The French and Italians used it a bit, but it really caught on in England, so much so that rhubarb custard became a bit of a cliche, and Brits today sometimes still dismiss it as "nursery food." In the United States, rhubarb pie (and strawberry-rhubarb pie) is a classic dessert, as is stewed rhubarb.
If you happen to be in Lanesboro, Minn., on June 2, you can take part in the annual Rhubarb Festival (www.rhubarbfestival.org), which includes the Rhubarb Olympics (rhubarb stalk throw, rhubarb golf, rhubarb toss), cooking contests and tastings. In the evening, Garrison Keillor, who advertises the fictional "Be-Bop-a-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie" on his public-radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," will host a special performance of the show.
The recipes here come from my own files; from "Kitchen of Light" by Andreas Viestad (Artisan, 2003), a Scandinavian chef who understands and loves rhubarb; and from the brand-new "Classic Stars Desserts" by Emily Luchetti (Chronicle Books, 2007), a chef who understands and loves sweets.
For the fruit layer:
3 cups diced rhubarb (1-1/2 inch dice)
2 cups quartered strawberries
3/4 to 1 cup sugar, depending on ripeness of berries
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
pinch of salt
For the topping:
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
pinch ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup lightly toasted nuts, such as pecans or hazelnuts
vanilla ice cream or whipped cream (optional)
Cook's note: Copper, iron or aluminum pots or utensils will react with the acid in rhubarb and may affect the taste. Use nonreactive (stainless steel or enameled) cookware.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter an 8- or 9-inch round baking pan.
In a mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the fruit layer. Mix well and turn into the prepared pan.
In another, smaller bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Using two knives, a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until the mixture is coarse and the butter bits are no larger than small peas. Add the nuts and mix well. Sprinkle over the fruit mixture. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the filling is set and the topping is a golden brown.
Serve warm or at room temperature. Top with whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.
Yield: 6 servings
Recipe from "Fresh From Vermont" by David Miles and Marialisa Calta (Vermont Life Magazine, 1992)
1 pound young rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste
2-1/2 cups water
1 cup dry white wine
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise in half
1 small (2-inch) cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons cornstarch (optional)
12 to 16 strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
sour cream for serving (optional)
In a nonreactive pot, combine the rhubarb, sugar, water, wine, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 25 minutes or until rhubarb is very soft.
Remove the cinnamon and vanilla, and discard the cinnamon. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the soup. Discard the bean. If you like a thicker soup, add the cornstarch and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Add half the strawberries to the soup and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature, or chilled, garnished with mint, the remaining strawberries and sour cream, if desired.
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from "Kitchen of Light" by Andreas Viestad (Artisan, 2003)
RHUBARB ICE CREAM WITH STRAWBERRY COMPOTE
4 cups diced rhubarb (1-1/2-inch dice)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
large pinch kosher salt
4 large egg yolks
1 cup milk
1-1/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream
For the compote:
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur (optional)
4 cups quartered strawberries
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Up to a week ahead, make the ice cream: In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the rhubarb, 1/4 cup of the sugar, water and salt, and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, let cool slightly and transfer to a food processor or blender. Working carefully (it may spurt), puree until smooth. Strain through a medium-mesh sieve. Let cool to room temperature.
Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes.
In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. In a heavy, nonreactive saucepan, combine the milk and cream and heat over medium heat until small bubbles appear around the edges. Whisking constantly, pour the cream mixture into the yolk mixture in a slow, steady stream. Pour the mixture back into the pan, place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon and reaches 175 F on an instant-read thermometer. This should take 3 to 5 minutes.
Pour the custard back into the bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. Place the bowl into the prepared ice bath. Let cool to room temperature, whisking occasionally. Whisk in the rhubarb puree. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours.
Freeze in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to a covered container and keep in the freezer until ready to serve.
Just before serving, make the compote: In a large saute pan, combine the lemon juice, sugar and liqueur (if using) over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 30 seconds. Add the strawberries and butter and cook, stirring gently until the butter has melted and the strawberries are warmed through.
Place a scoop of ice cream in individual bowls and spoon the strawberry compote on top. Serve immediately.
Yield: 6 servings
Recipe from "Classic Starts Desserts" by Emily Luchetti (Chronicle Books, 2007)
Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to www.marialisacalta.com.