Ruby Tuesday 

To fools and potions and pies, rhubarb brings a bittersweet pleasure.

Last week, during our ad-hoc Happy Hour--my roommates were celebrating the end of finals--one of the guys dreamed up an idea that sounded positively scintillating. "Strawberries, and...rhubarb!" he exclaimed. "That's it! A strawberry-and-rhubarb margarita! Now where do we get the rhubarb?"

I was instantly transported to my childhood backyard, where rhubarb, with its ruby-red stalks, grew like wildfire. But our backyard here in Berkeley doesn't get enough sun to support growing rhubarb, and even if it did, the two-year wait till harvesting time makes for delayed gratification. We made do with strawberries.

Rhubarb, that stuff of pies and crisps, has a very long and, to most of us, surprising history in Asia, where it grows in the wilds of Chinese mountain provinces and adjoining Tibetan territories. Its medicinal qualities spurred European trade expeditions and obsessive scientific inquiry from the Renaissance until the twentieth century. Marco Polo talked about it at length in the accounts of his travels in China, where rhubarb came to rival tea or opium as a trading commodity (and the Chinese withheld it from their enemies during times of conflict).

Like many plants of medicinal and culinary value, rhubarb, if used wrong, can be a deadly poison. According to Chinese legend, it was given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty to cure his fever but only after a warning that rhubarb, being a most potent drug, must be taken in great moderation. Later, it was taken in times of plague. A Christian sentenced to a harsh punishment was pardoned after using previously collected rhubarb to heal some soldiers. And a Ming general tried to commit suicide by eating rhubarb medicine. By the 18th century, rhubarb was grown for culinary purposes--as filling for tarts and pies--in Britain and America. And during WWI, British army slang included a word for tinned jam--"pozzy"--that was issued as part of the field ration; the regular plum and apple pozzy was supplemented later on by exotic mixtures of gooseberry and rhubarb. But when rhubarb leaves were recommended as a substitute for veggies that the war made unavailable, cases of acute poisoning and even some deaths resulted. The broad, red-veined leaves contain high levels of deadly oxalic acid; while herbal remedies use these leaves, and the roots, for stimulating and soothing troubled stomachs, only the slender stems are eaten. Our household margarita-maker was onto something: rhubarb, as a medicine, has purgative qualities, and its pungent and cathartic flavors, when used correctly, might just help to release tension after such gut-wrenching trials as final exams.

The sour stalks still contain enough oxalic acid to give that characteristic teeth-roughening experience. This may be why Native Americans never bothered to eat the stuff. It grows easily in the cool northern climes of the US and Canada--from Michigan to Quebec--but it was the Scandinavian immigrants who really chowed down. Garrison Keillor, in his delightful Rhubarb recording, tells how residents of Lake Wobegon have a special bond with the vegetable. He says that although the Indians, the Dutch, and the Germans all knew about rhubarb, it was too bitter for them. When the Norwegians came through, though, bitterness wasn't a problem. They simply did what they always did with a food they didn't understand--dumped a load of sugar on it and put it in the oven.

Rhubarb is somewhat acidic but, yes, in most recipes this is usually offset by sugar. As a baking ingredient (often called "pieplant"), it graces fruit pies, crumbles, upside-down cake, and cinnamony muffins with dollops of peach and rhubarb filling in the center.

Not every rhubarb creation must be oven-baked, though. There are rhubarb mousses, strawberry-rhubarb mousse pies, and rhubarb fools, which can involve fancy gourmet ingredients like crème fraîche and elderflower cordial. But for a quick, easy dessert, cook four cups of sweetened rhubarb until tender, then dissolve two packages of cherry or strawberry gelatin in the hot rhubarb. Fold in two pints of vanilla ice cream while the mixture is still hot. Cool slightly and pour into a graham-cracker crust in a 9 x 13-inch pan. Let set in the refrigerator, then cut into servings. You will have poor-man's fool, with a velvety consistency and a rosy pink color.

When my father was a child in Denmark, rhubarb grew in the vegetable garden alongside potatoes and parsley, underneath apple and plum trees. My grandmother would chop and stew the rhubarb stems in a pot with sugar and a sprinkle of lemon, and after the mixture chilled the children would eat bowlsful of the stewed-fruit porridge with whole milk over the top. This was their favorite dessert staple--in a country where dessert is as essential as air or water--to enjoy on warm summer evenings, instead of coffee.

The basic chunky rhubarb sauce or compote lends itself to savory dishes as well, providing a piquant base for marinades, glazes, and chutneys. To cook it, first chop handfuls of fresh, crisp stalks into half-inch cubes. For every six cups of diced rhubarb, add one to three cups of sugar and boil in a saucepan with lemon juice but no water. Simmer up to twenty minutes, as desired--the longer it cooks, the less chunky it will be. Once the sauce has cooled, it will keep in jars in the freezer until you're ready to use it on roasted meats and poultry.

If a ravishing ruby cocktail is your particular poison, here is a recipe I crafted after consulting exotic bartending guides (I'll have it ready for next year's final exams): Place 4 cups of finely diced rhubarb stems in a glass container with 2 cups of granulated sugar and 3 cups of good vodka. Stir, cap, and let it sit at room temperature for 2 to 4 weeks. Stir every few days; the color will change to a rosy glow. Then strain the liqueur, pressing the juice out of the rhubarb with a spoon. Strain again through cloth until clear. Rebottle and age at least one additional month before serving over ice with fresh lime.

Here's a faster way to use rhubarb:

BAKED CHICKEN AND RHUBARB

3 lbs. chicken pieces

2 cups diced rhubarb

1/3 cup sugar

1 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 1/2 cups water

2 tsp. lemon juice

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

rice for serving

Combine sugar, cornstarch, rhubarb, and water in a saucepan. Cook several minutes until clear and thickened. Add lemon juice. Cool. Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Brush with butter and sprinkle with salt. Bake uncovered at 375° for 30 minutes. Spoon rhubarb sauce over chicken, and sprinkle with spices. Return chicken to oven and bake 20 minutes longer. Serve immediately with hot cooked rice. Yields 4-6 servings.

RHUBARB-APPLE CRISP

Classic, all-American fruit crisps are easy to put together, as the crumb topping gives them the multitextured scrumptiousness of pie without the trouble of making crust. Here is a variation on the standard apple crisp, which works best in a two-inch-high, two-quart baking dish. The apples smooth the texture and also temper the natural tartness of the rhubarb.

Topping:

6 Tbsp. butter, cut into 1/2 inch chunks

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2/3 cup flour

1/2 cup rolled oats or chopped nuts

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. cinnamon

Work the butter with the rest of the ingredients so that each piece is coated and you have a coarse, crumbly mixture. Use half of it to cover the bottom of the baking dish. (In place of butter, you can use canola oil, or a mixure of canola and a rich-flavored nut oil, such as walnut or hazelnut.)

Fruit:

1 1/2 lb. diced apples

2 lbs. diced rhubarb

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup flour

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Pinch ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 375°. Make the topping and set it aside. Put the diced apples in a bowl and toss with the remaining ingredients. Arrange the fruit in the baking dish and cover with the rest of the topping. Set the dish on a sheet pan to catch any drips and bake until the juices from the fruit are bubbling and the topping is brown, about one hour.

STRAWBERRY-RHUBARB PIE

(Makes one 9-inch pie)

1 1/2 pints sliced strawberries

2 1/2 cups diced rhubarb

1 c. sugar

1/4 c. quick-cooking tapioca

1/8 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. grated orange peel

unbaked pastry for 2 crusts

1 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Blend thoroughly: fruit, sugar, tapioca, salt, and orange peel. Let stand 1/2 hour. Fill pie crust w/ fruit mixture. Dot with butter. Cut remaining pastry into lattice strips. (For lattice: cut 1/2 inch wide strips and criss-cross over filling, pressing firmly to seal, then trim and flute edge.) Combine cinnamon and remaining sugar. Sprinkle over lattice top. Bake at 425° for 40-45 minutes or until crust is golden brown. To prevent pie from bubbling over during baking, slip a sheet of aluminum foil underneath. Cool about three hours before cutting, or serve while still slightly warm with ice cream.

RHUBARB SOUR CREAM PIE

Filling:

3 Tbsp. flour

1 cup sugar

3/4 tsp. salt

1 cup sour cream

1 egg, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. lemon extract or juice

3 cups diced rhubarb

Crumb topping:

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 Tbsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400°. For the filling, mix everything but the rhubarb together, and then add the rhubarb at the end. Add filling to a 9-inch pie crust. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and bake for another 25 minutes. Remove the pie, and sprinkle the crumb topping on top (for the topping, simply mix the ingredients together until crumbly). Continue baking for another 15 minutes or until the topping is brown.

BANANA-RHUBARB BREAD PUDDING

1/2 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. vanilla

2 cups toasted whole wheat bread cubes

2 sliced bananas

4 cups diced rhubarb stems

Blend butter with 1/2 cup brown sugar. Add eggs and beat well. Add nutmeg, vanilla, toasted bread cubes, and sliced bananas. Place half of mixture in buttered baking pan. Place rhubarb over mixture with additional 1/2 cup brown sugar. Cover with balance of mixture. Bake at 350°, in a 5''x 9'' dish, for forty minutes or until rhubarb is tender. Serve with whipped cream.

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