Eating rhubarb to support locally grown food campaign

Rhubarb feast makes a point

May 14, 2008|By ROB KASPER

Any day that starts off with a bowl of rhubarb is, in my opinion, one headed in the right direction.

On a recent crystalline morning filled with promise and sunshine, I spooned up a rhubarb parfait. It was made with a touch of vanilla yogurt, a sprinkle of granola and a large serving of stewed rhubarb flavored with ginger. I also ate some rhubarb cake, which was delicious. But it looked more like coffeecake than the purplish "pie plant."

Hard-core rhubarb lovers know that it is a vegetable and has a taste so tart that if served without the company of sugar, it can bring you to your knees. Yet we embrace it.

The occasion for my recent rhubarb feast was a breakfast at Gertrude's restaurant announcing the "Eat in Season Challenge" being undertaken this year by a handful of Baltimore-area restaurants.

The idea, a project of the Slow Food movement in Baltimore, is to challenge restaurants to serve locally grown food. Starting this month, one area restaurant will serve a three-course menu made with locally grown food during one week of each month. The primary ingredients can either be in season, or preserved. So far, 10 restaurants have signed up.

Watertable is scheduled to serve its local menu in May, the Brass Elephant in June, Joe Squared Pizza in July, Donna's in August, Gertrude's in September, the Chameleon Cafe in October, Tapas Teatro in November and One World Cafe in December. In 2009, Great Sage has taken April and the Golden West Cafe has snagged May. So far, January, February and March have not been spoken for.

The theory behind this endeavor is twofold, its backers say. First, they hold that locally grown food tastes better than fare flown in from distant climes. And they believe that the practice of seasonal eating reminds diners of the agricultural rhythms of their community.

In other words, if you want rhubarb for breakfast - as every right-thinking person should - you gotta know when it comes to market.

Around here, rhubarb is a late-spring, early-summer crop. But as Kerry Dunnington discovered, rhubarb can be hard to locate. Dunnington, a Baltimore caterer and author of This Book Cooks, heads Baltimore's Eat in Season Challenge. When she went shopping for the stalks she needed to make breakfast fare, she had to hunt.

Rhubarb had not yet appeared in the farmers' markets, and most grocery store produce sections didn't carry it. "Eddie's has it sometimes but, eventually, I found it at Whole Foods," she said.

This shows one of the "challenges" of using seasonal food, she said. Sometimes weather delays the usual arrival date of a local crop and, in the case of a low-demand item like rhubarb, the food can be slow to move from the fields to the markets.

Two weeks ago, when the breakfast was held, Dunnington was a little ahead of the local rhubarb harvest. But she said she made the dishes with out-of-town rhubarb to illustrate what can be done with the local crop when it arrives.

Dunnington described herself as a recent convert to rhubarb. "I was not a rhubarb girl," she said. But the experience of working with rhubarb, slicing it thinly and cooking it without much water, convinced her of its glories.

Even folks who have enjoyed a storied history with rhubarb, such as Martha Lucius, manager of Boheme Cafe and a fellow Slow Food member, admit its shortcomings.

There is its odd color, which Lucius describes as looking like that "awful mauve carpeting that was everywhere in the 1980s."

There is its lack of celebrity. Muffins made with peaches fly off the shelves at her cafe in downtown Baltimore, Lucius said. But those made with rhubarb sit like wallflowers at a high school dance, rarely moving.

Still, rhubarb with its high fiber content is not only good for your innards. It is, Lucius said, good for your moral fiber as well.

A formative experience in her life, Lucius said, was spending rhubarb-filled summer days with her grandmother near Binghamton, N.Y.

"She had a hillside garden where she grew rhubarb. She made us eat it raw, sliced with a little sugar," Lucius recalled. "She said it `built character,' and she was very fond of building character."

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Kerry Dunnington's Rhubarb Cake

-- Serves 15

CAKE:

2 cups white flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups (about 1/2 pound) rhubarb, finely diced

TOPPING:

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In a bowl, beat butter with white and brown sugars. Add egg and vanilla and beat until slightly fluffy. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk. Beat until well combined. Fold in rhubarb.

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