What are the most delicious springtime couplings? Certainly fresh baby peas and early asparagus, or sorrel sauce on soft-shell crabs. My vote goes to strawberries with rhubarb.
It is still about a month early for local strawberries but the crop from Florida is greatly improved over the winter supply. Rhubarb is now available from local sources, and it is a delicious, inexpensive ingredient for pies, crumbles, muffins, compotes, chutneys, and jams.
Rhubarb, or Rheum rhabarbarum, is a vegetable from the family Polygonaceae. But for tax purposes, it was declared a fruit by the United States Customs Court in Buffalo in 1947. It is often referred to as the “pie plant.”
When you slice stalks of rhubarb, it releases a beautiful, green, vegetal fragrance. Cooked together with strawberries, sugar, and either a bit of ginger or orange zest, it contributes to a complex, perfumy, sweet-tart marriage of flavors.
As early as 2700 B.C., the Chinese were cultivating rhubarb as a purgative. A planting in Europe was recorded in Italy in 1608, and by 1778 it was being used as a food plant. But beware! The leaves are extremely toxic, due to their high oxalate content. The editors of the first edition of the classic tome “Larousse Gastronomique” in 1938 were apparently unaware of this, suggesting that the leaves be cooked like spinach. Do not follow this advice!
The stems, however, can be used in a savory sauce for pork or goose. In Norpurposes, one and a half pounds equals one quart. One quart should yield about four cups of sliced berries.
Rhubarb does not require much preparation before cooking. The stalks can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator for about five days. They should be crisp and unblemished, not droopy or wiggly. Wash well, but no need to peel; the fibrous quality will break down when cooked, and you want to retain the color. It is best, and prettiest, to find the farm-raised, red MacDonald type. The green varieties, such as Victoria, can turn a muddy gray pink when cooked. However, I have been using the larger green variety in my crisps lately, and once they are combined with strawberries, the color is quite a fetching magenta pink.
In Shakespearean theater the word “rhubarb” would be repeated by several actors at once to mimic the sound of a raucous crowd or cause a disruption in the action. It is probably this early usage that led the word to be used as baseball slang for a fight between the umpire and a player or between players and fans. The late, great baseball broadcaster Red Barber called the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field the “rhubarb patch” because of Dem Bums’ tendency to argue incessantly with the umpire. (I just felt like throwing that tidbit in.)
Here are some recipes to get you started with one of spring’s first and best pairings of the season.
Persian Rhubarb Stew (Khoresh Rivas)
This recipe looks fascinating to me. It is a version of Persian rhubarb stew, or khoresh rivas. The rhubarb gives it some body and tang, a little more interesting than just the addition of lemon or lime juice.
Serves four to six.
8 stalks rhubarb, washed, and cut into bite-sized pieces
11/2 lbs. lamb stew meat
1 large onion, chopped
1 bunch parsley, stemmed and chopped (2 cups)
1 bunch mint, leaves only, chopped (1 cup)
1/2 tsp. tumeric
Salt and pepper to taste
2-3 Tbsp. sugar to taste
In heavy stock pot or Dutch oven, sauté onion in two tablespoons oil until translucent. Add tumeric, stir, add meat, and brown on all sides. Add salt and pepper and enough water to cover meat, then cover and cook over medium to low heat for one hour.
In large frying pan over medium heat, sauté parsley and mint in two tablespoons oil for about five minutes. Add this to meat mixture halfway through cooking. Add more water if necessary.
Lightly sauté rhubarb pieces in 2 Tbsp. oil for 2 to 3 minutes on medium heat. Add to meat pot and simmer another 15 minutes.
Taste, then add two to three tablespoons sugar to achieve a sweet and sour balance. Cook five minutes more, then serve over basmati rice.
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp
I have published variations of this crisp recipe so many times and through so many seasons, it’s ridiculous. It is worth making a big batch of the streusel topping and keeping it in the freezer for quick desserts.
Serves four to six.
8 cups washed and sliced strawberries and rhubarb, equal parts or 2/3 rhubarb and 1/3 strawberries
1 cup sugar
4 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. ground ginger
Combine the above ingredients and place in a two-quart casserole, gratin, or soufflé dish.
5 Tbsp. butter, cold and cut into small bits
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
Combine butter, flour, brown sugar, and ginger in mixer. Blend until crumbly but bits of butter are still visible. Add almonds at the end.
Spread streusel topping over fruit and bake in 375-degree oven for about 40 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown on top. Serve with vanilla ice cream!