Get it while you can. In two to three weeks, rhubarb will have disappeared from the markets and you will be left with the frozen variety, if you are lucky. At the Farmer’s Market, the crimson stalks are a harbinger of Spring – they arrive before the bounty of stone fruit and berries, giving the poor Pastry Chef a respite from citrus while waiting for Summer.
Rhubarb looks very much like celery but denser and with leaves that remind me of kale. It’s unlikely you have seen the leaves unless you have come across a plant itself as the stalks are all cleaned up by the time the reach the consumers, the reason being they are highly toxic. Clearly a vegetable, the US deemed it a fruit for commercial purposes in 1947 so that a lower tax would be imposed.
Indigenous of China and Russia, where it grows on the banks of the River Volga, the Chinese were aware of its medicinal properties as long as 5,000 years ago (it’s a strong laxative). It was my compatriot Marco Polo who introduced rhubarb to Europe, where it remained extremely expensive all through the Middle Ages, more prized than cinnamon and saffron. When sugar became widely available in the 18th century, rhubarb found its place in the kitchen – it was the English who came up with the combination of mixing rhubarb and strawberries in pies (see, we have uncovered another culinary discovery hailing from Albion!). In the US, it made its appearance around the 1820’s.
On my way to Vancouver, shortly after moving to the States, my boss at the time joined me from Seattle, laden with boxes of rhubarb pie, my first encounter with the sweet possibilities this vegetable offers. Until then, rhubarb, to me, was synonymous with bitterness as Italian monks, for centuries, had been making digestive bitter drinks with it. I never looked back from that first pie, going on to using rhubarb in cakes, turnovers, compote. I like to roast it with sugar and eat it even just by itself.
Last week, at the market, the kind man working the produce aisles dove in the back and returned with a couple of pounds upon my asking. I bought some organic strawberries and planned to mix it inside a cake batter and use the rest for a compote. Here is how.
Rinse and cut 4 stalks in 1/2 inch pieces. Place them on a baking sheet with 1/4 cup of sugar and roast at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until very soft. Let cool.
Hull and rinse a pint of strawberries and halve them. Put them in a pan with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar (depending on your palate and the strawberries’ sweetness) and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Cook on low heat until the strawberries start to break down. Add the rhubarb and mix.
Use the compote to embellish your oatmeal or eat it warm with vanilla ice-cream and, if you are adventurous, pour a reduction of balsamic vinegar on top.