Monday, May 19, 2008

What's your favorite spring vegetable?

Rhubarb. Tart and fresh. It brings with it the promise of spring. The taste of raw rhubarb captures the smell of new-mown lawns and fragrant garden flowers. Most recipes containing this amazing vegetable fall into the dessert category. But with a little exploration and adventurous culinary spirit, one can find recipes for rhubarb salads and rhubarb/meat combinations.

If, like my southern friend Jenn a.k.a. Jenn-zing, you've never tried rhubarb, you might find it easier to venture into the salad/entree world of rhubarb. For we northerners, where rhubarb flourishes, a mindset tends to develop so that when we think of rhubarb, we conjure images of pies, cobblers, and crisps filled with intoxicating pink tart sweetness. It's hard to let go of something so delicious to think that it could be served as a complement in a savory dish.

On Mother's Day my brother and I planted some flowers for Mom. That's when I discovered that she still has rhubarb growing in the back yard. Until then I had been coveting the neglected rhubarb patch beside my neighbor's garage. I've seen it go to seed most of the recent summers and wondered if anyone would notice if I sneaked out in the middle of the night to pull up some stalks. The Mother's Day revelation alleviated my evil plotting but began a short-term obsession with the plant.

In salads and entrees that include rhubarb as a major ingredient, it is usually cooked into a sauce or chopped into a salsa and so becomes dressing or garnish. Regardless, something has to be done to address the tough skin of the rhubarb stalks. A few days after Mother's Day we celebrated Mom's birthday, I planned to cook dinner for everyone and as an added gift, I thought I'd see if the Birthday Girl was feeling adventurous and suggested some salad and entree recipes using rhubarb. She didn't bite.


Whether you've chosen the traditional or the adventurous route, there are a couple of tips to gathering and preparing your harvest before bringing it inside. First, pull the rhubarb, don't cut it. Next, an important step in preparing your rhubarb is to get rid of the leaves as they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic, so you have no use for them. To streamline cleanup a little just chop off the tops before you go into the house. The leaves can be composted if you wish.
The stalks of the rhubarb have a tough skin, so your recipe may call for peeling or cooking the rhubarb. The skin makes the plant a challenge to chop, and so you may not believe that cooking will soften it enough. Surprisingly, it does.

So for Mom's birthday I made a rhubarb dessert. A recipe I found at allrecipes.com. And what a find. It's called Rhubarb Dream Bars. Nice shortbread crust, eye-watering tart rhubarb filling with coconut and walnuts. Mom delivered another batch to some friends the following day. All of them claimed to HATE at least two of the filling ingredients... and all of them had second helpings of the dream bars. So much for hate!

We'll keep doing what we have to to spread the love a.k.a. rhubarb.