Old reputation of this tart treat turns out to be a big mistake

April 24, 1994|By Steven Raichlen | Steven Raichlen,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

I was the first kid on my block to eat rhubarb. For that matter, I was probably the only kid on the block to eat rhubarb. My playmates -- and their parents -- mistrusted this strange vegetable, whose stalks look like fat, green-red celery. Perhaps they were mindful of the meaning of rhubarb in colloquial speech: "an argument" or "quarrel."

My childhood companions were no better than the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed rhubarb was a food fit only for barbarians. The Greek writer Dioscorides called it "rha barbarum," which loosely translated means "plant of the barbarians who live beyond the Volga River." (Rha was the ancient Greek name for the Volga). As centuries passed, rha barbarum was eventually shortened to rhubarb.

The ancients didn't know what they were missing. Rhubarb has a bold, refreshingly tart flavor, with an intriguing, spicy aftertaste. It makes wonderful compotes and is delectable in all manner of muffins, tea breads and pies.

Rhubarb's bum rap may come from the fact that its leaves contain toxic quantities of oxalic acid. According to food historian Waverley Root, during World War I, a misguided civil servant in England recommended eating rhubarb leaves. The advice was quickly withdrawn after hundreds of people became ill. But rhubarb stalks are not only completely edible, they're perfectly delicious.

Rhubarb is low in calories (56 per pound) and moderately rich in potassium and vitamins A and C. The stalks can eaten cooked or raw, but never eat rhubarb leaves. Rhubarb should be avoided by people with kidney stones, as even the small quantities of oxalic acid it contains can lead to the formation of calcium oxalate -- a compound found in kidney stones.

Rhubarb was prized as a medicinal herb in Asia, where it was used as a purgative as early as 2700 BC. Marco Polo reported that it was exported "far and wide" from China. Arab traders seem to have brought the plant to the West. The first written record of rhubarb in North America appeared in 1778. By the mid 1800s, rhubarb pie had become a popular American dessert, especially among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Indeed, one of rhubarb's nicknames is "pie plant."

Food historian John Mariani provides the following recipe;for Rhubarb pie in his encyclopedic Dictionary of American Food and Drink (Hearst Books):

Combine 4 cups chopped rhubarb, 1 1/3 cups honey, 7 tablespoons flour, 1/4 cup angelica (can be omitted if not available), and 1/2 teaspoon salt in mixing bowl. Pour into prepared 9-inch pastry crust, dot with 1 teaspoon butter, cover with another pastry crust, bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake another 50 minutes.

Fresh rhubarb is in season from April to July. Look for plump, firm, springy stalks. The color can range from pale green to red and any hue in between. Avoid limp or shriveled stalks, or those with brown or slimy ends. The thick stalks are just as

tender as thin ones, and are quicker to wash and chop.

To prepare rhubarb for cooking, simply cut off the ends and wash the stalks. Rhubarb contains a great deal of water, so you don't want to drown it in cooking liquid when you prepare it.

Rhubarb is mouth-puckeringly tart in its natural state. That does not prevent Eskimos and Afghani tribesmen from eating it. Europeans enjoy rhubarb for its tartness: They often pair the astringent plant with pork, fowl and even seafood.

Mindful of rhubarb's potential as an accompaniment to savory dishes, I once made the following rhubarb salsa. Blanch 2 cups very finely diced rhubarb in boiling water for 10 seconds. Refresh it under cold water, then drain. Combine the diced rhubarb with 1/2 cup each diced sweet red and yellow peppers and cilantro. Stir in 3 finely chopped green onions, 1 or 2 minced chili peppers, 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice and brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve the rhubarb salsa with grilled chicken or grilled fish.

But most Americans prefer their rhubarb sweetened in dessert form. Here's the rhubarb compote I grew up on.

Grammie Sarah's rhubarb compote

My Grammie Sarah wasn't the world's most adventurous cook (we once almost came to fisticuffs when I tried to convince her to serve lamb medium-rare). But she was the one who introduced me to the delights of rhubarb, and during the season we ate this compote at last once a week.

Makes 4 servings.

1 pound fresh rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch-thick slices

1 tablespoon finely chopped candied ginger

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar or honey, or to taste

1/3 cup apple cider, ginger beer or water

2 strips lemon zest

whipped cream and mint sprigs for garnish, optional

Combine rhubarb, candied ginger, sugar, apple cider and lemon zest in large, heavy saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat until rhubarb is tender, 6 to 8 minutes. (The trick to cooking rhubarb is to cook it long enough to soften it but not so long that it falls apart.) Stir compote occasionally or it may boil over. Correct sweetening, adding sugar to taste.

Cool compote to room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve as is or spoon compote into martini glasses and top with dollops of whipped cream and sprigs of fresh mint.

Steven Raichlen is the author of "Steven Raichlen's High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking," Camden House, and the director of Cooking in Paradise, a cooking school in St. Barths.

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