Sour Rhubarb's Sweet Success

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

My first memory of rhubarb stems from a visit to my sister-in-law Kerstin's home in Lerum, Sweden.

From her large kitchen garden, Kerstin harvested a few stalks of rhubarb, chopped them and cooked them with sugar and water until the fibrous stems broke down. She then thickened the rosy pure with potato starch.

Served lukewarm, topped with a splash of cold milk, this rhabarberkrm, (rhubarb pudding), seemed a perfect summertime dessert; light and refreshing with a sweet-tart flavor.

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I immensely enjoyed my introduction to rhabarberkrm, but I didn't really begin cooking with rhubarb until I enrolled in an intensive cooking class a few years later on another visit to Sweden.

The class was held in June, at the beginning of the local rhubarb season, and our enthusiastic instructor, IngMarie, made ample use of this natural bounty. We baked rhubarb pies, cooked rhubarb puddings, and even learned how to concoct rhabarberdricka, a slightly tart, nonalcoholic rhubarb drink.

A native of northern Asia, rhubarb is also popular in Russia, northern Germany, Holland, Belgium, and England.

Even today, children in the rhubarb-growing areas of England are given a "tusky," a raw stalk of rhubarb and a bowl of sugar for dipping, as a treat. So prevalent is the English love of rhubarb that John Cleese of Monty Python fame satirized it. In Cleese's "The Rhubarb Tart Song," Shakespeare's embattled King Richard III calls out, not "My kingdom for a horse!," but rather, "My kingdom for a slice of rhubarb tart!"

A member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, but in 1947 a United States Customs Court in Buffalo, N.Y., formally declared it a fruit and therefore subject to a lower import duty.

Today, most of the US "pie plant" crop comes from Washington, Michigan, and California.

Each spring now, I look forward to the return of rhubarb and to baking my favorite rhubarb tart. Happily, the local farm stand continues to sell it throughout the summer and into October, so I have plenty of opportunity to experiment with my ever-expanding file of rhubarb recipes.

Rhubarb Almond Delight

This rhubarb pie recipe is adapted from 'The Nine Seasons Cookbook,' by Pat Haley (no longer in print).

Crust:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

Filling:

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the crust, combine the flour, butter, and brown sugar in a bowl. Cut the ingredients together with two knives until crumbly, a food processor works well for this.

Press the mixture into an ungreased 9-inch square baking pan or a 9-1/2-inch round pie plate.

In a medium bowl, mix all filling ingredients together except the almonds.

Spoon filling onto the crust. Sprinkle almonds on top.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until top and crust are light brown and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Serve warm or cool.

Yields 9 servings.

Rhubarb Pudding

Known as rhabarberkrm in Swedish and kissel in Russian, this easy stewed rhubarb dessert is ideal for hot summer days.

1-1/2 cups water

1 to 1-1/4 cups sugar, depending on desired sweetness

4 cups rhubarb (washed, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces.)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup cold water

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Milk or heavy cream, optional

Bring water to boil in medium saucepan, add sugar, then rhubarb, and cook on medium heat about 10 minutes until rhubarb breaks down.

Meanwhile, dissolve the cornstarch in the cold water.

Add the vanilla to the cooked rhubarb, then stir in the cornstarch solution.

Stirring constantly, bring to a boil again, and cook for about one minute until rhubarb begins to thicken.

Pour into serving dish and sprinkle surface lightly with sugar to prevent a skin from forming as the rhubarb cools.

Rhubarb will continue to thicken as it cools. Serve warm or cold, with a splash of milk or cream if desired.

Serves 4 to 6.

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