Rhubarb has a loyal following, especially among people who grew up with the red stalks proliferating in their backyard garden and who appreciate its mouth puckering flavor.
Like it or not, rhubarb has a loyal following, especially among people who grew up with the red stalks proliferating in their backyard garden and who appreciate its mouth-puckering flavor.
“It’s got a unique tart taste,'' said Mary Beers, who leads rhubarb jam workshops at the Greenbrier Jam Kitchen in Sandwich, Mass. “People either really like it or dislike it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle road. But I’m addicted to strawberry rhubarb pie.''
For pies, crisps, crumbles, tarts and streudels, rhubarb often is paired with strawberries. The sweet berries balance the tartness and blend with the rosy coloring. Beyond desserts, rhubarb also can be made into a sauce, compote or chutney for chicken, pork or fish, a topping for pancakes and waffles, and an addition to quick breads and muffins.
“You get that real sweet and sour flavor, and it’s neverending what you can do with it,'' said Maria Cavaleri Gilardo, pastry chef for Tosca, Cafe Tosca and Stars in Hingham, Mass. “Rhubarb is one of my favorite things and I bring it back every year.''
One of Gilardo’s newer creations is strawberry rhubarb parfait, now on the menu at Cafe Tosca. In a tall glass, she layers strawberry rhubarb filling with pastry cream lightened with whipped cream and crisp graham cracker crumbles.
At its Strawberry Night earlier this month, UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge, Mass., dressed up salmon and white asparagus with strawberry rhubarb compote.
This is the season for rhubarb, which thrives in the cool, damp weather. It is one of the first harvests in the garden, and the large, heart-shaped crinkled leaves (which are poisonous to eat) and red stalks proliferate like weeds until hot weather arrives.
Like celery, rhubarb grows in stalks and is stringy. The stalks are 95 percent water and soften up readily when cut into pieces and steamed or boiled. It was originally cultivated in ancient China for its leaves – used for medicinal purposes – and the stalks became popular as a food in Europe because of their versatility and spring bounty.
“It’s like asparagus, where you want to eat it when it’s tender,'' Beers said. “By mid-summer, the stalks are thick and tough.''
This year’s crop – at least in New England -- is particularly abundant, said Andrea Taber, owner of Ever So Humble Pie Company in Walpole, Mass. In fact, Taber has been buying rhubarb not just from a commercial grower, but from local gardeners who have a bumper yield.
Taber makes pies from all kinds of fruit, but she considers rhubarb – which technically is a vegetable – almost synonymous with pie.
“Rhubarb’s other name is the pie plant, because it partners well with just about any other fruit,'' said Taber, who sells strawberry rhubarb pie and rhubarb streusel in her store and at the Milton, Mass., farmer’s market.
Rhubarb also is a homey food, so much so that Garrison Keillor dubbed his traveling Prairie Home Companion show “The Rhubarb Tour.'' The name even is part of America’s national pastime, where “rhubarb'' refers to a ruckus between baseball players or with the umpire, a meaning popularized by sports broadcaster Red Barber in the 1940s.
“It’s a comfort food that brings us back to our childhood,'' said Beers, education director of the Thornton W. Burgess Society, which runs the Greenbrier Nature Center and Jam Kitchen. “I can remember as a child, we always had rhubarb. My mom would pick it, boil it up with sugar and just spoon it over bread. Up through the ’60s, a lot of people were fed rhubarb in one way or another.''
Recalling that she used to dip the stalks in sugar and suck on the end, Taber said her rhubarb strawberry pies are popular in all seasons.
“A lot of people buy them not just because they taste good, but because they bring back memories.''
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds rhubarb, cleaned and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 quart strawberries, washed, greens removed and quartered
Zest of 1 orange, grated
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
11/2 tablespoons corn starch
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy sauce pan. Add half the rhubarb and cook about 2 minutes.
Add half the strawberries, the orange zest and sugar and cook until the rhubarb starts to soften.
Combine the corn starch and orange juice and mix into the cooking rhubarb, stirring well. Add remaining rhubarb and strawberries, stirring often until it is soft but still in chunks.
Remove from heat and cool in a container. It can be refrigerated for up to four days.
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, cold
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
21/2 cups all purpose flour
11/4 cups rolled oats
Mix all ingredients except butter in a bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Rub ingredients together until they look moistened but very crumbly. Can be prepared one week ahead and kept refrigerated.
Fill ramekins or a large baking dish with the strawberry rhubarb mixture and completely cover with a layer of crisp topping. Bake at 375°F (place on a cookie sheet or other pan lined with foil to catch the drips) until topping is golden brown and filling is very bubbly. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream.
From Maria Cavaleri Gilardo, pastry chef at Tosca and Stars, Hingham, Mass.
Strawberry Rhubarb Jam
2 pounds strawberries
1/2 pound rhubarb
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
4 cups granulated sugar (may be reduced to 3 cups for more tartness)
Wash and thinly slice rhubarb. Wash strawberries and crush slightly. Place in a heavy pan. Add sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently until thick and glossy. Skim off foam. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Yield: 4 to 6 8-ounce jars.
From Mary Beers, Greenbrier Jam Kitchen
The Patriot Ledger