Rhubarb is one of the first harbingers of spring, and a welcome sight it is, whether brilliant pink stalks tied in bunches in your market or crinkled leaves pushing up through the soil in your garden.
This plant is traditionally served as a dessert liberally sweetened to make it palatable. But botanically it is a vegetable, not a fruit, since we eat only the fleshy pink stalks.
This is a favorite food in most northern European countries, perhaps because it grows so easily in a cool climate. The Latins have mostly ignored it and, until nouvelle cuisine, it was seldom found in French restaurants.
Its apparent homeliness, like so much fashion, has suddenly reversed itself. Some daring young chefs in chic restaurants now serve rhubarb pureed as a vegetable or main course sauce or garnish because of its color and flavor contrast.
The old-fashioned name ''pie plant'' tells you the most common way of using rhubarb in the United States, England, northern Germany, and Scandinavia. Well sweetened to balance its natural acidity and cooked only until tender to avoid stringiness, it is also excellent cooked in many other ways and adapts to a wide variety of treatments.
Whether you like rhubarb for its reassuring homeliness, its delicate color, or its tart, refreshing taste, here are several recipes to help you welcome spring.
Rhubarb fool, from the French word foulem meaning crushed, is a favorite among English desserts and extremely easy to make. When you add the cream to the puree , stir it in carefully to make a pretty marbled effect with the two colors.
Fruits that are naturally tart make the best sherbets and ices and this particular rhubarb version, a pale pale pink, is as cool and refreshing to the eye as to the palate. Remember it during the high heat of summer when your spirits need a lift.
The juiciness of stewed rhubarb makes it ideal for upside-down cake, a pastry that is similarly old-fashioned and yet perennially popular. Orange, a good complement to rhubarb, flavors the cake given here. Serve it while still warm when it tastes best.
Rhubarb mousse can be made well ahead, even frozen and then thawed in the refrigerator, to ease preparations for a party. Rhubarb Fool 1 pound rhubarb, sliced 1 3/4 cups sugar, or to taste Water 1/2 cup heavy cream, or more
Combine rhubarb and sugar in saucepan. Add almost enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer about 5 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb tender. Cool, then puree in blender or food processor. Chill thoroughly in refrigerator.
To serve, ladle into a pretty glass serving bowl or individual bowls. Pour in cream either in the middle or in thin lines and draw a knife through it to make pretty streaks across the surface.
Or whip cream and serve it separately to let guests help themselves. Makes 6 to 8 servings. Rhubarb Sherbet 1/2 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch slices 1 cup sugar 2 1/2 cups water 2 tablespoons lime juice
Put rhubarb, sugar, and water in pot. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes or until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb tender.
Cool and puree in a food processor or blender. Add lime juice and chill thoroughly in refrigerator. Freeze in ice trays or bowl, stirring several times to smooth ice crystals.
Or freeze in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions. Allow sherbet to mellow 1 1/2 to 2 hours before serving.
Another way to make the sherbet without the worry of timing is to freeze rhubarb syrup in ice cubes.
When frozen solid, put half the cubes at a time in food processor bowl and process with metal blade until mushy, the cubes completely broken down, scraping down sides once or twice.
Pack into covered container and refreeze. Scoop out and serve at your convenience.
Strictly speaking, this last method makes a granitasm or Italian ice. Try mounding it in scooped-out lime cups, 2 halves per serving.
The pale pink-mauve of the sherbet against the green lime skin makes a beautiful color combination. Makes about 1 quart. Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake 1/4 cup sweet butter 1/2 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups) 1/2 cup orange juice 3/4 cup sugar 4 large eggs, separated 3/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon grated orange zest 2 tablespoons orange juice 3/4 cup flour 3/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt
Liberally grease sides of a deep 8- or 9-inch cake pan with butter, or use a skillet instead if you prefer. Melt remaining butter and spread it over bottom.
Combine rhubarb pieces, orange juice, and sugar in small saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer 5 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb soft.
Cool, then spread over butter in pan. Set aside.
Beat together egg yolks and sugar, then add orange zest and juice. In another bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
Gradually fold dry ingredients into wet. In a large bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and mix one spoonful into batter.
Then fold batter gently back into whites and quickly combine. Gently spoon batter into pan over rhubarb.
Bake in oven preheated to 325 degrees F. about 35 minutes or until done. Cool slightly, then run tip of knife around edge of pan.
Place serving plate on top and invert. Serve while still warm, cut into wedges like a pie. Rhubarb Mousse 1 tablespoon gelatin 3/4 cup orange juice 1/2 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 1 1/2 cups) 3/4 cup sugar 2 egg whites 1 cup heavy cream
Soften gelatin in orange juice for a few minutes, then put in small saucepan with rhubarb and sugar.
Bring barely to boil, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes until gelatin and sugar are both dissolved and rhubarb is soft. Cool, then puree in blender or food processor.
Whip egg whites until stiff but not dry. In another bowl with clean, dry beater or whisk, whip cream until it peaks.
Swiftly fold egg whites into rhubarb puree, then fold in whipped cream. Spoon into 4 1/2- or 5-cup mold and refrigerate, covered, for at least 3 hours.
To unmold, run tip of knife around edge and dip mold into hot water for a few seconds.
Place serving plate on top and invert. You may need to repeat this: be patient.
When unmolded, wipe away any melted cream and decorate with rosettes of whipped cream, curls of orange zest, sprigs of fresh garden mint, or fresh strawberries. Makes 6 to 8 servings.