Rhubarb rapture

The tart vegetable can be used to make more than pie filling

April 10, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Rhubarb - even with loads of sugar, its tart and astringent flavor is an acquired taste.

So there are those for whom rhubarb, also known as pie-plant, is more trouble than it's worth. And then there are those who welcome it as a sign of spring, as well as a tangy token of the past.

"To me it is a very old-fashioned kind of fruit," says Madeleine Greene, a Howard County-based educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension who remembers her grandmother cooking with rhubarb.

Rhubarb resembles psychedelic celery, with stalks that range in hue from pale pink if grown in a hothouse to bright cherry red if grown in a field.

While it is botanically classified as a vegetable, "We use it as a fruit, if you think about it," Greene says. No vegetable is ever cooked into a sauce and ladled over angel food cake, she explains.

One of the first plants to emerge from the garden in spring, rhubarb is harvested from April to June. It is high in potassium and vitamin C, and perhaps is best known as a companion to strawberries in pies.

But rhubarb is also at home in breads, chutneys, fritters, jams and meat dishes. Pureed, stewed rhubarb makes a savory sauce for veal cutlets and poached chicken breasts, according to the Wellness Encyclopedia of Food & Nutrition: How to Buy, Store, and Prepare Every Variety of Fresh Food. It freezes well and usually doesn't need to be peeled before cooking, Greene says. Simply chop up the stalks (the leaves are toxic), stew them in water or orange juice and add sugar before preparing a particular rhubarb recipe, she says.

Whether stewed, baked or preserved in jellies, two cups of rhubarb generally require one cup of sugar. If cooked with sweeter fruit, such as strawberries, it won't require as much sweetening. Honey or maple syrup may also be used to sweeten cooked rhubarb.

When selecting rhubarb, look for straight, crisp stalks. If the vegetable is past its peak, peel away fibrous strings before preparing. Remove any attached leaves. Stalks may be kept loose in a plastic bag for one week.

Even though it is relatively easy to cook, rhubarb appears to be vanishing from the dining room table, going the same way of other sentimental favorites that require preparation, Greene says.

There are stalwarts, though, such as Laurie Porter of St. Paul, Minn. Her cookbook, The Rhubarb Gourmet, is "the result of a 20-year fascination with rhubarb," first encountered in the back yard of a country home. "That mixture of sweet and sour ... it's very refreshing," Porter says.

True, after writing her book, Porter heard from many older women with names like Verna, Luella, Ardis and Irene, standard-bearers of the home-grown rhubarb tradition. "Please send the book as soon as you can - I have a ton of rhubarb!" one urgently wrote.

Porter says her book is an attempt to "get away from strawberry-rhubarb pie, which is what most people do." Among the adventurous recipes, she has included one for rhubarb sorbet with jalapenos. Other offerings include a porkchop dish with rhubarb stuffing and a spicy rhubarb chutney appetizer.

Still, when spring arrives and those hot-pink stalks shoot through the ground, "Strawberry-rhubarb pie is the first thing I make," Porter says. "It's hard to beat."

For recipes or to order Porter's cookbook, contact www. rhubarbgourmet.com.

Rhubarb Sorbet With a Bite

Makes 4 generous servings

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup water

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 pound fresh or frozen rhubarb in 1-inch pieces

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh jalapeno peppers

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Combine sugar, water and lemon juice; warm over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and add rhubarb. Simmer until rhubarb is tender, approximately 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and puree until smooth. Stir in jalapenos and corn syrup.

Refrigerate until cold, then use ice-cream maker and finish according to manufacturer's instructions. You may also place mixture in a flat pan or freezer tray and freeze.

As mixture begins to freeze solid, be sure to stir or use mixer to break up the ice crystals periodically. With either method, take sorbet out of the freezer 15 minutes before serving to make serving easier.

- The Rhubarb Gourmet

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