A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on April 16, 2003.

Farm Fresh

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie is Just the Beginning
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

To be perfectly honest, rhubarb has never really interested me. Then one day I was talking to Mary Jo Thoresen, pastry chef/co-owner of Oakland's Jojo, about the plant. I needed some ideas on savory preparations for this spring perennial and wanted to know if her husband, chef Curt Clingman, had anything on the menu. I mentioned that in Poland, rhubarb is often cooked with potatoes and aromatic herbs. I could practically hear the wheels turning in Mary Jo's head.

"Hmmm," she said slowly. "You could, I don't know. You could make a giant potato pancake. Grate up some Russets, layer them with thin slices of rhubarb, mix in some grated apple- you'd need ones that could hold up to the potato- Sierra Beauty or Gala. Fry the whole thing in some unsalted butter, and serve it in wedges with roast pork. That sounds good!"

Irresistibly good. Then, I stumbled across a recipe for seared wild King salmon with rhubarb marmalade. That clinched it. I had to have rhubarb.

Love it or hate it, the appearance of rhubarb in the market heralds the official start of spring. Although technically a vegetable, the U.S. Customs Court officially declared it a fruit in 1947, because that is how it is usually eaten. Who hasn't had strawberry-rhubarb pie?

Like buckwheat and sorrel, to which it is related, rhubarb prefers a cool climate. Wild plants, like those in its native Northern Asia, tend to have greener stalks. Cultivated varieties have been hybridized to maximize their ruby color, which is more aesthetically appealing in dessert preparations.

Although rhubarb stalks and root have a long history of medicinal use, valued for their "blood-clearing effect" and purgative properties, the plant wasn't generally used as a food until the 16th century. Rhubarb leaves contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid, which in large quantities can be fatal. Like spinach, rhubarb stalks contain only trace amounts of oxalic acid. Once it was discovered that the stalks were both edible and delicious when cooked, rhubarb caught on quickly.

In parts of the Middle East,it is added to spinach to make a stew called khorest. The Italians make rabarbaro, an aperitif touted as a healthful tonic.

The British, in particular, love rhubarb, although primarily in desserts. Colonists brought the first plants to the Americas, where it became known as "pie plant," for obvious reasons.

Perhaps one reason why rhubarb has been slow to catch on in America- other than pie- is the common misperception that it is difficult to prepare. Not so, says Thoresen.

"There is a mystique about it, but it's really simple to cook," she says. "You just trim the ends of the stalks, cut them up, and they're ready to go. Rhubarb crisp is about the easiest thing you can make. For a tart, I choose thin, tender, red stalks- it seems to me that it makes a nicer bite than having thick chunks. If they're still a little green, I'll add raspberries to the top of the tart."

Rhubarb is sold commercially as either "field-" or hothouse-grown. Says Thoresen, "The field plants taste a bit more vegetal to me, greener. Hothouse seems more delicate, so that would be my choice for sweet dishes."

Thoresen confesses to "loathing" cooked strawberries, an affliction she and I share. "Strawberry and rhubarb is such a classic pairing, and customers love it. What I do instead is make a rhubarb jam, using about one pound rhubarb to one cup sugar. I cook it down to almost a marmalade consistency, then spoon it into the bottom of buttery little tartlette shells, add some vanilla pastry cream, and fresh strawberries on top. Rhubarb also pairs very nicely with apple, or add some ginger or orange juice or zest when you cook it. Last week, I did a fresh ginger cake, and served it with poached rhubarb compote."

For Thoresen's compote, make a simple syrup in a large saucepan by heating three parts water to one part sugar. Add a split vanilla bean and the rhubarb, sliced diagonally into one-inch pieces, reduce heat to low, and directly cover the surface of the compote with a piece of parchment. Cook until tender, and thicken with a slurry of cornstarch and water, if necessary.

At Oliveto, chef Paul Canales uses rhubarb in a simple, earthy stuffing. "We just dice up the stalks, cook them out a bit, then make a stuffing out of toasted breadcrumbs, chestnuts, pancetta, add a little Balsamico...It's wonderful with roast duck."

Rhubarb is even an easy keeper: Just leave the stalks whole until ready to use, and store them in an open plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Rhubarb is so low maintenance, even the most time-challenged cook can whip out a crisp or potato-rhubarb cake with little effort. If not, there's always your neighborhood bistro. Says Thoresen, "I put rhubarb on the menu, and I sell the whole thing. People really seem to crave it."

Spring is in the air.

recipe adapted from Food & Wine magazine, 2002

Rhubarb is available at most specialty produce stores and some farmers markets.

3/4 cup water 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon grated, peeled ginger 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped 1 pound rhubarb, stalks only, cut into 1-inch pieces salt and freshly ground pepper 1 tablespoon canola oil 4 (6-oz.) King salmon fillets, skin removed 4 ounces pea shoots or watercress, for garnish

In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, ginger, allspice, vanilla bean and seeds. Add rhubarb; bring to a boil. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce is jamlike, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, discard vanilla bean.

In a nonstick skillet, heat oil over moderately high heat. Season salmon on both sides with salt and pepper. Cook, turning once, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Spoon sauce onto plates, top with salmon, and garnish of pea sprouts or watercress. Serves 4.

Per Serving: 299 Calories; 9g Fat; 35g Protein; 17g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 88mg Cholesterol; 131mg Sodium.

This column is a service of Straus Communications, a San Francisco-based public relations and marketing firm, supporting organic food, sustainable agriculture, and critical environmental issues of our times. For previous Farm Fresh columns, to contact Laurel, and to learn about Straus Communications, please visit www.StrausCom.com or call 415-777-1170.

E-mail contributing writer Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
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Last modified: March 26, 2002