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WHIDBEY RECIPES | Something sweet for a veggie that’s often ignored and misunderstood

Rhubarb - Courtesy of FotoosVanRobin on Flickr
Rhubarb
— image credit: Courtesy of FotoosVanRobin on Flickr

Few vegetables have such a difficult time getting the respect they deserve as poor, misunderstood rhubarb.

What’s that? You think rhubarb is fruit? Well, so does most of the country, but the truth of the matter is, rhubarb is a vegetable.

Of course, you can’t eat it like a vegetable, at least I’ve not yet found a way to do so. And should you be foolish enough to use rhubarb leaves, thinking you’re eating healthy vegetable greens, you could end up very, very ill, possibly even dead. Pretend it’s a fruit, use only the red stalks, and you’ll find it delightful.

There are so many reasons to love rhubarb. It’s one of the very first perennials to show up in our garden, a sure sign of spring to come. It’s also virtually impossible to kill, surviving even winters like this last one, and it moves well from one location to another. I have two rhubarb plants that have now moved with us from Langley to Columbia Beach to Sandy Hook, and one of those came from my aunt’s garden even before that.

Rhubarb also plays well with others, such as apples, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and plums, but is hearty and sturdy enough to hold its own when paired off with venison, buffalo, pork, elk or turkey.

It’s a bit overpowering for that wimpy farm-raised salmon, but if you have a fresh, beautiful piece of wild king salmon or a lovely fresh halibut roast, rhubarb can transform into a sweet/tart glaze that is pure pleasure with fish.

Yes, I know that just the thought of rhubarb can make your lips pucker; it’s right at the top of the “too tart to eat” list, and one of the reasons so many people avoid rhubarb is fear of the amount of sugar it might take to make it edible.

When paired with sweet fruit, however, it’s possible to enjoy rhubarb without going into sugar shock, and there are many recipes available using sugar substitutes. And, those ruby-red rhubarb stalks are full of Vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and, of course, fiber.

So, if rhubarb hasn’t been in your kitchen for a long time, or at all, it’s time you paid some respect to this poor, misjudged vegetable that can only get attention by pretending to be a fruit. It’s readily available this time of year, and so is one of its favorite playmates, sweet, ripe strawberries. Get them together, and underrated, ugly-duckling rhubarb will show you what a misused vegetable can really do.

Of course, if the only rhubarb you’re familiar with is the kind that happens when a player gets into a big fat “rhubarb” with another player or referee or umpire, then it’s probably of no use to tell you to respect rhubarb; that would be an oxymoron.

RECIPES

First, if you haven’t already tried putting rhubarb in muffins, biscuits or pancake batter, give it some thought. Rhubarb adds a bit of zing and bright flavor and won’t make your batter runny, because rhubarb holds in moisture very well.

Dice it small and try adding it to cupcakes, muffins, cake mixes; you’ll be surprised how versatile it can be. And when buying rhubarb, choose slender, bright red stalks; they’ll be tender and most flavorful.

This recipe is for a many-uses rhubarb cream; it’s great between cake layers (yes, use a box cake mix if you wish, such as lemon, spice, strawberry), this cream filling between the layers will turn it into something special.

RHUBARB CREAM

2 cups fresh rhubarb pieces (about ½-inch)

3/4 cup halved hulled strawberries

½ cup plus 1/3 cup sugar (see instructions)

¼ cup water

2 T. fresh lemon juice

5 large egg yolks

1 cup chilled whipping cream

½ t. vanilla extract

Combine rhubarb, strawberries, ½ cup sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat and simmer until the rhubarb is very tender (about 15 min.). Purée mixture in a food processor and chill until cold, about an hour.

Whisk egg yolks and

1/3 cup sugar in a large bowl to blend (use metal or glass, not plastic). Set bowl over a pan of simmering water but don’t allow the bowl to touch the water. Whisk until the mixture thickens and is about 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 7 min. Chill mixture until cool. Gently fold the rhubarb mixture into the egg mixture.

Using an electric mixer, beat the whipping cream and vanilla in another large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the rhubarb mixture in two additions. Chill mixture until ready to use.

Note: This delicious, pink cream is excellent piped into a cream puff or an eclair shell, spooned into a meringue shell, spread as a filling on thin, hot crepes (all of which could be garnished with fresh strawberry slices), even spread between graham crackers or cookies for a quick treat for the kids. It will not keep long in the refrigerator, however, so plan ahead for how you’re going to use it.

Sponge pudding, usually just called “sponge,” is a very old British pudding that has gained new popularity thanks to cooking shows. It’s easy but delicious, and rhubarb lends itself to sponge very well.

RHUBARB SPONGE

1½ lbs. fresh rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces (you should have about 5 cups)

1/3 cup packed golden brown sugar

2 T. water

1 cup plus 2 T. flour

1½ t. baking powder

½ cup sugar

7 T. butter, at room temp.

2 large eggs

6½ T. whole milk

Butter an 11x7x2-inch baking dish. Place the rhubarb pieces in the dish in an even layer. Scatter the brown sugar over the rhubarb and sprinkle with the 2 T. water.

Whisk together the flour and baking powder in a small bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter in a large bowl until pale and fluffy (about 3-4 min.). Add eggs one at a time, beating well between additions.

Fold the flour mixture alternately with the milk mixture into the egg mixture, in three additions, beginning and ending with flour (3 flour, 2 milk additions), mixing just to blend after each addition. Spoon the batter over the rhubarb, smoothing batter so it covers rhubarb. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 min. Cool at least a ½ hr. before serving, but it’s best served warm, with a small dollop of whipped cream or ice cream on top.

We almost always have a lot of rhubarb over the course of a summer and one of my favorite things to do with any excess is rhubarb jam, which you’re not likely to find on every supermarket shelf, but which is my top favorite jam on many things. If you use pectin to help set up jam when you make it, follow the instructions given with the pectin. If your pectin doesn’t give you any instructions for rhubarb, e-mail me and I’ll get them to you. Otherwise, here’s a non-pectin, old-fashioned rhubarb jam recipe.

RHUBARB JAM

2 lbs. fresh rhubarb stalks, cut into pieces

6-8 thin strips lemon peel, about 1/4-inch wide (be sure it’s only peel, no white, and use less if you want less tartness in your jam)

½ cup water

2½ cups sugar

Combine the rhubarb pieces, lemon peel and water in a large, non-aluminum pot. Bring to a boil, return heat to simmer and cook mixture for 30 min., stirring often.

Turn up the heat and begin adding sugar, ½ cup at a time and making sure the mixture returns to a boil before next addition of sugar. Continue cooking jam mixture over high heat (on my stove I have to calm it down to med.-high heat), stirring constantly. If it begins to splatter, turn the heat down just a bit. Cook until the jam thickens and reduces to about 3 cups (anywhere from 15 min. to?, depending on the juiciness of your rhubarb). Remove from heat and ladle into hot, sterilized ½-pint jars, to within an 1/8-inch of the top. Wipe rims of jars and cover with new lids and screw caps, tightly. Invert the jars for a minute or two, then turn upright. They should “ping” as the lids snap in. Any jars that don’t ping will have to be kept refrigerated. Or, process jars in a boiling water bath for 10 min.

Makes 3 cups. Don’t try to double the recipe; it just doesn’t work.

Photo courtesy of FotoosVanRobin on Flickr.

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