A Vegetable by Any Other Name
Not everyone is a rhubarb fan. Jane Grigson, the acclaimed English food writer, is my go-to for questions on ingredients, and I read this line, “It’s good for you, dear,” in Jane Grigson’s Book of Fruits (every good cook’s kitchen should have a copy of this as well as Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book).
Her veddy English take on rhubarb: nanny food. Governess food. School-meal-food (cold porridge with rhubarb for breakfast). We didn’t have a nanny or governess, so I was spared rhubarb at home. But late in life I’ve come to enjoy it. As usual in Grigson’s books, you get a historical look at the topic. Seems in the pre-1800-era the roots of the plant had a medicinal use. “Nothing like it, they thought, for a gentle purge.” But by the nineteenth century this pre-fruit or semi-fruit (Grigson’s words) found its way into pies and tarts as an ingredient.
As for choosing this vegetable that we treat as a fruit, Jane suggests young stalks—pinkish is best—and remove all the leaf (they contain oxalic acid and are toxic, not stomach-worthy) and remove the brown bits near the end of the stalk. If they are mature, remove the stringy bits with a peeler. “Young rhubarb does not need peeling and should not have any strings to speak of,” says Jane.
Fast Forward to 2016
One of my favorite food writers is Melissa Clark who writes in the New York Times food section (and also appears frequently on the Times’ video feature online.) I immediately perked up at Melissa’s suggestion about spooning a ginger-rhubarb compote over yogurt for breakfast. (I think it would be great over pancakes, waffles, cake, and ice cream, too.) But, she thought, what else can I do with this creation?
Here’s an off beat but seasonal recipe to try. (And it includes chives. Mine somehow revived and burst forth in April.) Asparagus and rhubarb doesn’t sound like a good idea, but because both scream Spring! she gave it a whirl and found it good.
I urge you to make it. I’d serve it with zucchini soup, a roasted pork tenderloin, and end with a glorious orange-flavored pound cake.
Melissa’s Roasted Asparagus with Gingered Rhubarb Sauce
- 1 lb. thick asparagus, ends snapped
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- Kosher salt or coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 Tbsp. butter, or more to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp. grated ginger (from a 3⁄4-inch chunk)
- 1⁄4 lb. rhubarb stems, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 1 to 2 Tbsp. honey, or even more to taste
- Chopped chives to taste
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. On a large rimmed baking pan, toss the asparagus with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread the stalks out in an even layer and roast until the tips are a golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how thick they are.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and let it cook until it turns a deep golden brown and smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and a large pinch of salt and pepper and cook until the garlic turns opaque, about a minute. Stir in the rhubarb. Cover the pan and let cook until the rhubarb melts into the sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in the honey to taste. This will depend on how sour your rhubarb is; just keep adding honey and salt until it tastes right. If the sauce is still too intense, you can whisk in in a little more butter to mellow it. It should have a deeply pungent character, but should not veer into bitterness.
Serve the asparagus covered in rhubarb sauce and showered with chives. Use a lot of chives. As Melissa says: “Rhubarb sauce isn’t pretty.” Right on, Melissa. (But, as I can tell from your book’s cover and TV appearances, you and your toddler sure are.) By the way, Melissa’s new cookbook is entitled Cook is Now; 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make (Hyperion). It contains two excellent-sounding rhubarb recipes you probably can’t wait to make.
James Beard’s Fool
The Essential James Beard Cookbook, with 450 recipes “that shaped the tradition of American Cooking” was published a few years ago by St. Martin’s Press. It was edited by Rick Rodgers with John Ferrone (both old friends of mine), and I am delighted to see it. (It’s wonderful reading—and don’t miss the foreword by esteemed writer Betty Fussell, Beard’s introduction [written in 1983], and the notes from the editor. It’s worth your time.) Here, in a paragraph, is Jim’s no-fuss fool, a variation of his strawberry fool. Use it for most any berry you can find:
Cook about 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces, with 1 cup sugar in a saucepan over very low heat until it is quite soft, about 15 minutes. Add a drop or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice to accent the flavor. Whip 1 cup of heavy cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until stiff. Fold into the rhubarb puree. Chill until serving.
I Felt Like a Fool, So I Made One...
...and this one spells S-P-R-I-N-G to me. Why? Because the main ingredient is the very-seasonal rhubarb. Perhaps you have a stand of this ingredient somewhere out back. Lucky you. Here’s a recipe I’ve been using for years.
- 7 c. fresh rhubarb stems cut in 1-inch pieces
- 1 c. crushed gingersnaps
- 2/3 c. sugar
- 1⁄2 tsp. powdered cinnamon
- 3 Tbsp. melted butter
- Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream
- Sliced ripe strawberries (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Remove the coarse strings of the rhubarb and then cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large saucepan, cover, and cook for about ten minutes over medium-low heat, stirring often until just tender but not mushy. Drain well. Combine the crushed gingersnaps with the sugar and cinnamon. Add the melted butter and mix well.
Lightly grease a 1-quart casserole; add a layer of the drained rhubarb and sprinkle with some of the crumb mixture. Repeat the layering, ending with the crumbs. Bake for 15 minutes. Let cool slightly, but serve warm topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Add a teaspoon of rum or vanilla to the whipped cream for a jolt of flavor.
Yes, you can add layers of sliced strawberries to this fool. It’s delicious.