When was the last time you found yourself in the middle of a rhubarb?
What’s that? You’ve got no idea what I’m talking about? You must be quite young, because anyone over the age of 50 knows what it means to find oneself in the midst of a big rhubarb.
According to my American Heritage Dictionary, one version of rhubarb is “a heated discussion, quarrel, or fight.”
As in, “Boy, did we ever get into a big rhubarb last night at dinner when someone started in on the Obama/McCain dilemma.”
I have no idea how that particular usage of the word came into being, and my dictionary was of very little help with that.
Most of us think of rhubarb, if we think of it at all, as a fruit usually turned into pie. In fact, rhubarb’s other name is “pie plant,” because for decades that was about all it was ever used for. Well, let me cure you of some misconceptions.
First, rhubarb is not a fruit; it’s a vegetable. Never mind that it is used and treated as a fruit, it’s still a veggie. And second, there are many, many excellent, tasty, interesting and satisfying things you can do with rhubarb besides put it in a pie.
Does your radiator need a good cleaning? Boil up a bunch of rhubarb leaves and use the resulting liquid to unclog drains and clean the radiator. Those big, green leaves are full of oxalic acid and we all know that’s one of nature’s most powerful cleaning agents. But, if your own, personal “radiator” is suffering from some blockage, it’s the roots of the rhubarb you’ll want to boil, cool, then drink.
Aaaah, nothing like a healthy dose of rhubarb tonic to tune up the system. Do not, however, under any circumstances, just munch on rhubarb leaves; they can be toxic.
Actually, for most of us, it’s only those rosy red stalks we’re interested in, and right now rhubarb is ripe, ready and inexpensive. Usually it’s mid to late May when we’re up to our ears in rhubarb, but this year, everything is a bit late and rhubarb is currently plentiful in every supermarket produce section.
And, lest you think only the roots and leaves are useful, think again.
Rhubarb stalks are rich in calcium and phosphorus, as well as Vitamin A. The main drawback, as any rhubarb lover knows, is that rhubarb is virtually inedible without a hefty amount of sweetener, but if you’re careful about what types of sweetener you use, even that can be counteracted.
So, should you find yourself in the middle of a big rhubarb, let’s hope it’s the eating kind, not the fighting kind.
Several years ago, I gave my recipes for two rhubarb favorites, Rhubarb Mousse and Rhubarb Cake, in this column, so I’ll skip them this time, but if you didn’t get them then and would like to have them, please e-mail me at the address below or contact The Record office and I’ll make sure you get them.
Meanwhile, here are some other outstanding ways to make use of some “pie plant” that have nothing to do with pie. The first one is a Yorkshire Pudding lover’s delight; who’d ever have thought of turning this staple of British cooking into such a delicious dessert.
¼ cup butter
2 large eggs
¾ cup flour
¼ t. salt
¾ cup milk
½ lb. rhubarb, cut into ¾-inch pieces
1/3 cup butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
Whipped cream or ice cream
Place the ¼ cup butter in a 1 quart souffle or deep baking dish. Put into a preheated 425-degree oven until butter is melted and bubbly. Be careful not to burn.
In a blender or food processor, whirl eggs, flour and salt until smooth. Add milk, whirl until smooth. Pour batter into bubbling butter, then drop rhubarb pieces into center of batter. Bake until edges of crust are deep golden brown, about 25 min.
When pudding is nearly done, melt the 1/3 cup butter in a saucepan, stir in brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is a thick syrup.
Spoon hot pudding into bowls and serve, offering hot brown sugar sauce and cream or ice cream to top as desired. Serves 6.
One rhubarb concoction I love to have on hand over the holidays is Rhubarb Chutney. It is an excellent accompaniment to venison, goose, turkey or duck and a good way to use rhubarb now to enjoy later.
4 lbs. rhubarb, cut into small pieces
1 lb. onions, skinned and diced (sweet onions are especially good, if available)
2 lbs. Demerara sugar (usually available in baking/sugar section)
1 lb. raisins
2 t. ground ginger
2 t. curry powder
1½ pints malt vinegar
Put rhubarb, onions, sugar, raisins, spices and ½ pint of the vinegar in a large cooking pot; bring to a simmer and cook gently until the rhubarb is soft and tender. Add remaining vinegar and continue cooking on low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Pour into hot, clean jars, top with canning lids and rings and process in a hot water bath according to your canner instructions. Makes about 6 pints chutney.
And finally, a gorgeous upside down cake that makes delicious use of that favorite taste combination, strawberries and rhubarb, with some almond flavor thrown in.
RHUBARB STRAWBERRY UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
For the topping:
3 T. butter
½ cup sugar
2 cups rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup strawberry preserves
For the cake:
One 7 oz. pkg. almond paste
½ cup sugar
5 T. unsalted butter, room temp.
1 large egg, at room temp.
1½ cups flour
1 t. baking powder
¼ t. salt
¼ t. nutmeg
½ cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.
To make topping: In a heavy saucepan, melt butter. Add sugar; stir constantly until sugar begins to melt and starts to turn a light caramel color. Add rhubarb. Stirring constantly, cook for 3 min. or until syrup begins to thicken. Pour the rhubarb mixture into the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Drop rounded teaspoons of preserves evenly around the top of the rhubarb. Set aside.
To make cake: Using an electric mixer, beat almond paste and sugar on low speed until it is the texture of small crumbs. Add butter and mix until combined. Beat on high for 2 min. Add egg, beat until very creamy, about
3 min. Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add the flour mixture and the milk to the almond paste mixture and mix on low speed until just combined. Drop spoonfuls of batter on top of fruit in pan and gently spread batter evenly.
Bake for 50-55 min. or until cake is done and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Make sure center of cake springs back when pressed lightly with a finger. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 15 min., then run a knife around edge of cake and remove springform sides. Tip cake upside-down onto a serving platter and carefully lift off the bottom of the pan (you may need to use a slim spatula to help get the bottom off cleanly). Serve warm or at room temp., with fresh sliced strawberries as accompaniment, if desired.
Margaret Walton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.