With an upfront tartness, rhubarb has been silenced with sugar for too long. Let the sour shine and rediscover this ancient spring welcome sign.
By Stefanie Gans & Lindsey Jenkins
“They’re both too big and bossy,” writes cookbook author and New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark in “Cook This Now,” suspecting the doomed pairing of rhubarb and asparagus. But these two spring vegetables somehow worked, as Clark roasted the spears and created a gingered sauce from the rhubarb.
“Rhubarb has such high acidity that you want to tame the acidity with sugar or salt,” says Clark.
Leave out lemon or vinegar when adding rhubarb to savory dishes, she suggests, noting the plant also works as a substitute for the citrus in duck a l’orange. “Use its very intense tartness as a plus.”
The rock band Five Iron Frenzy immortalized the tart vegetable in the song “Rhubarb Pie”: “Rhubarb pie, in the summer. Rhubarb pie, made by my mother. Nothing better in the winter, than rhubarb pie after dinner.”
Dennis Culp, the lyricist and trombonist of “Rhubarb Pie,” uses memories of the dessert to stave off homesickness while on tour. “I grew up at 8,500 feet above sea level in Evergreen, Colo.,” says Culp, and “rhubarb was one of the only sweet-ish plants that would grow where we lived that the elk wouldn’t eat.”
His mother would use it in a cobbler “with the crust on top and not on the bottom” and serve it in a bowl with milk and vanilla ice cream.
just add water
Gail Rose of Deauville Farm in Basye, a master gardener and organic farming teacher, says rhubarb is a tricky vegetable to plant. Rose says she finds that “rhubarb likes soil that remains relatively damp … it doesn’t like to dry out.” Lower areas that are prone to puddles and limey soil (which can be recreated by scattering wood ash over the seeds when growing) are perfect spots for rhubarb plants.
Stalks need to be groomed, leaves should be trimmed and the stalk should never fully grow into a flower. “The plant spends all of its energy into producing seeds when the flower has bloomed,” says Rose, warning that once the stalk has reached this point, the stalk loses its flavor.
an affair remembered
“Trust the English, who are in many ways the masters of both pudding and perversity, to take something so unpalatable and turn it into dessert,” says Mei Chin, about rhubarb—which was originally used as a laxative in ancient China and Tibet—and now worshiped by the United Kingdom in tart-form.
Chin, in “Rhubarb’s Ruby Submission” reminisces about the role of rhubarb during her childhood. Decades later, she looks back at her mother’s baking with rhubarb and assumes it’s because of her affair with an Englishman, and now stepfather—and relates it to her tumultuous relationship with the vegetable. “When I find myself preparing more rhubarb than usual, I also find myself about to fall in love with someone unreliable.” Chin’s piece in gilttaste.com won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ 2013 Best Culinary Writing award.
@Skinnytobeindc Rhubarb pudding: Cook rhubarb+sugar+water 30mins. Mix potato starch+water, add. Bring to boil, remove. Serve w/ whipped cream.
@beingthefunmama go back in time, have my grandma make me a strawberry rhubarb pie. #bestrecipeever
@belmontmedina 5 stalks chopped rhubarb, juice of a tangerine, .5 cup sugar, .5 tsp grated ginger. Cook down, cool, swirl into pundcake batter.
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