Friday, May 31, 2013

FoodLove: Rhubarb

Looking at my freshly washed spring rhubarb, it's hard to believe that this humble plant -classified surprisingly as a fruit in America- was once more highly prized than cinnamon and opium when it traveled the Silk Road to 14th century Europe.
For thousands of years, rhubarb could be found to be growing wild on the banks of the River Volga, which flows through central Russia. The plant finally made it's way to America in the 1820's, and began it's popularity along the east coast and spread west from there.

Now that I live in a cooler, more temperate climate, I find that everyone has at least one huge clump of rhubarb in their back yard. Although rhubarb can be grown in almost any region, it grows best in areas with lots of rain and what is called a "chilling requirement"; a certain number of nights in the 40s or below during the growing season. In upstate New York, we plant rhubarb in direct sunlight, and our rainfall is sufficient to render irrigation unnecessary. If one wants to grow rhubarb in hotter climates, it would need to be planted in a shady spot and provided with lots of water.

Many grocery stores carry greenhouse-grown rhubarb, which typically presents a stronger pink or red color to the stalk and can be sweeter and less tart than outdoor-grown rhubarb, which tends to show a much more mild pink and can sometimes even be a simple pale green. The color of the stalk bears no effect on it's culinary suitability - other than a slight difference in the sweetness.

This year, following a marathon spring planting day, I came home to find a bag of rhubarb stalks hanging on my front door knob- a gift from my lovely next-door neighbor. Having lived in the Southeast for close to 30 years, I hadn't had a lot of exposure to rhubarb or it's recipes. The day I snatched that bag of leggy, lolling stalks off my front door, started me on a path of new and exciting culinary possibilities. I started with rhubarb cobbler:

Preheat your oven to 400 convection. (425 non-convect)
1 cup white sugar
6 cups rhubarb, cut to large chunks
3 heaping TBSP cornstarch
splash of water
Mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a large saucepan. Add the rhubarb and toss to coat. Add a splash of water and bring the heat up to medium. Cook for several minutes to develop the starch and slightly cook the rhubarb. Set aside.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 stick of butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs

The cake part of a cobbler is what is known as a "quickbread". Quick breads are mixed using a technique called "wet-dry" mixing.  Combine the dry ingredients and mix. Melt the butter, lightly scramble the eggs and add both to the milk. Mix to combine. This is your "wet" component. Add the wet to the dry ingredients and mix together, but don't overmix.

Remove the rhubarb mixture to a 9x13 pan or other suitable baking dish. Dot the top (if desired) with dabs of butter. Pour the batter over the top and bake at 400 for 25-30 minutes or when the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling up from underneath. It's a good idea to bake cobblers with an underpan to catch possible drips.

Finished cobbler. Serve with vanilla ice cream!
Another good recipe using rhubarb is Rhubarb Bread. Much like banana bread or zucchini bread, the batter is heavy and can taste a little like cake. My recipe was invented on a morning when I had 7 young adults (including 4 strapping West Point Cadets) to feed, 4 eggs, one stick of butter, 25 pounds of sugar (to feed to the new bees), a half-empty jar of crystallized honey, and a sink full of rhubarb that I had gotten from the neighbor's giant patch. (with permission, of course). I did have some steak sauce, peanut butter, yellow mustard and a can of Italian Sardines, but I couldn't come up with a passable idea that would appeal at 9 am.

Winter'rest Farm Rhubarb Bread
1 stick of butter
2 scant cups white sugar
1/2 cup local honey
4 small eggs or 3 large/extra-large eggs
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
4 cups chopped rhubarb

Cream the butter for several minutes until pale yellow. While the machine is running, add the sugar slowly. Add the eggs, one at a time. Add the honey and rhubarb and mix. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix again. Add the flour and baking powder. Mix on medium for a minute or until just combined. Pour in the milk and mix until incorporated. The key is to not over-mix once you add the flour, which makes the final product tough.

Rhubarb is a wonderful plant that will live for years with little or no maintenance. It's a healthy food, providing anti-oxidants, minerals and lots of B vitamins, including niacin, which helps maintain the body's lipid levels. Once your rhubarb plant gets too big, you can pull it out and split it, as we did here:

This large plant became 7 new ones!
7 new plants from one giant root!
 Grow your own rhubarb and have fun inventing your own new recipes! Remember though: the leaves are toxic, so cut them off and toss them into your compost bin. Enjoy!