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Rhubarb, Herald of Spring

James Beard

May 15, 2018

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of rhubarb, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Rhubarb, Herald of Spring

Rhubarb has always meant, for me, the coming of spring. The minute I see those enormous leaves and red stalks coming up through the ground and taste the first dish of stewed rhubarb, I know that the earth is once more sending forth good things to eat.

In my part of the country, Oregon, rhubarb was one of the first members of the vegetable world to emerge—for it is a vegetable, and not a fruit, although we have treated it as a fruit all our lives, in fact, ever since it came into common use about 1835. Actually, both the plant and its root have been used for centuries—in China, where one type of rhubarb originated; in Tibet, whence came rather rare varieties of rhubarb that are used in medicinal compounds; and in Siberia, which gave us the more common variety we know and grow. In the last 30 years, a lot of rhubarb has been grown in hothouses, the main difference being that the stalks are a delicate pinky red, whereas the field kind are deep, almost ruby red.

The Siberian rhubarb, the old stalwart harbinger of spring that we have had in our gardens for ages, used to be considered a great spring tonic. People took rhubarb and soda tablets, ate rhubarb, and drank sassafras tea in the belief that they were cleaning out their systems, but that habit has all but perished. Now rhubarb is enjoyed mainly as a dessert by those who like its tart acidity—there are many who do and just as many who don’t.

Then, of course, there is rhubarb wine. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when bars and social drinking were not the customary thing, as they are now, this was one of the many homemade wines prepared and drunk by family and guests. I have friends in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country who still make rhubarb wine in May, when the rhubarb is most plentiful and the stalks big and juicy. One friend got her bottles mixed up one day and put her dry rhubarb wine in Harvard beets, instead of vinegar, which she discovered gave them the most wonderful flavor, so now she uses it that way all the time.

A word of caution about rhubarb—no matter how tempting the crinkly green leaves may look, don’t attempt to eat them. They are so full of oxalic acid that they can be very toxic.

Though we usually talk about “stewed” rhubarb, the best way to cook these long lovely stalks, to my mind, is in the oven.

To make Baked Rhubarb, take 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, trim off the leaves and stem end, wash the stalks, and cut them into 2-inch long pieces. Put these in a pottery or porcelain casserole with sugar to taste (some people like their rhubarb sweeter than others, so I think one should sugar it fairly lightly when cooking, then let everyone add sugar at the table), about 1/4 cup water, and a dash of salt. Cover and bake in a 350°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until just tender, but not mushy, with delicately pink-tinged juice. This baked rhubarb makes a delicious sprint dessert served cold with brown sugar and heavy cream, or a little whipped or sour cream.

Or you can turn your baked rhubarb into that heavenly British dessert called Fool. Bake 2 pounds rhubarb in the oven until it is quite tender, put it through a food mill to get a thick purée, and sweeten to taste. Just before serving, fold the purée into an equal quantity of whipped cream or sour cream and serve very cold in small glass bowls, topped with whipped cream garnished with a little shredded preserved ginger.

Most people are accustomed to eating rhubarb in a pie—in fact, for years it was called "pie plant," and there are still some who refer to it by that name. This luscious deep-dish Rhubarb Pie is a favorite of mine, served warm with heavy cream or whipped cream marbleizing the pink juices:

Mix 4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, with 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups sugar, 4 tablespoons flour or 2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon grated orange or tangerine rind. Turn into a deep 9-inch pie dish lined with rich pie crust, and dot with butter. Trim the edges of the pastry, moisten them, top with pastry crust, trim the edges, and crimp the top and bottom edges together. Cut slits in the top for the steam to escape. Bake in a 450°F oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake about 25 to 30 minutes longer. Serve warm or cold.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.