EATING LOCAL - Spring is ripe for Valley's rhubarb

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Rhubarb has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mom made stewed strawberry rhubarb when spring arrived every year. We would eat it over yogurt or ice cream, warm with cream, on toast, in a bowl like applesauce or straight out of the jar with a big spoon. I loved the stringy mushy texture and the sweet and sour taste, with a fragrant, almost floral essence.

I continue on with my mom's tradition and whip up a jar of stewed strawberry rhubarb each spring. My kids aren't as keen on it as I am, but maybe with time they will learn to enjoy it, or at least look back years from now with melancholy for the days when their mama made strawberries and rhubarb. And maybe they will start making it for their own kids. A mom can dream.

Rhubarb was historically considered a vegetable until a New York court decided in 1947 that since Americans eat it as a fruit, it should be labeled a fruit. Rhubarb is high in Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant and immune booster, and Vitamin K, which is used in bone metabolism and blood coagulation.

Rhubarb has been used for medicinal purposes in China for thousands of years, but its use as food is a pretty new idea. It was first recorded in 17th century England, after affordable sugar became available to common people. Rhubarb first came to the U.S. in the 1820s, entering the country in Maine and Massachusetts and moving westward with settlers.

If you're new to rhubarb, get ready for a treat!

For cooking purposes, we use the stalk and discard the leaves, which are toxic. The stalk is used fresh and has a crisp texture, with a strong tart taste. Most often rhubarb is stewed with sugar or used in pies and desserts, but can also be used in savory dishes or pickled. My new favorite is rhubarb poached in a simple syrup with anise, cinnamon and peppercorns. Yum!

Rhubarb grows easily in most places across the U.S. In the Walla Walla Valley, many farmers and neighborhood gardeners grow this perennial plant for profit and personal use.

One can find it at the Walla Walla Farmers' Market on Saturdays, at one of our local farm stands or at groceries that carry local produce. It may take a little more work to hunt down the local stuff, but well worth it to our farmers and local economy. You know me, I'm all about supporting local business and farmers!

No matter where you get it, rhubarb is a spring delicacy. Don't be afraid and give it a go. If you are already a rhubarb connoisseur, consider trying a new recipe, like my new favorite: poached rhubarb.

Poached rhubarb with cinnamonand star anise

2-3 stalks of rhubarb

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

6 peppercorns

3 star anise

1 stick cinnamon

Wash and trim the top and bottom off the rhubarb. Cut into 2-inch segments and then cut in half, lengthwise. Bring the sugar water and spices to a boil in a medium saucepan. Once the liquid has come to a boil, drop the rhubarb in the pot. Check the rhubarb's progress by lifting one and giving it a quick gentle squeeze, being careful to not overcook. Once they feel cooked through (but not mushy), pull out of the liquid and cool on a sheet pan or flat bottomed pan, leaving space in between to cool. Serve as is, on a spinach salad, or between a cookie and ice cream for a delicious, gourmet ice cream sandwich.

Stewed strawberries and rhubarb

1 pound rhubarb

1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved

cup sugar

cup orange juice or water

3 tablespoons butter

Remove any leaves from the rhubarb. Cut the rhubarb stems into chunks and place in saucepan with other ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until fruit has softened. Either serve as is, or mash/blend for a smooth texture. Serve warm or cold, with granola and yogurt, over ice cream or in a bowl like applesauce.

Red fruit salad with rhubarband strawberry soup

4 stalks rhubarb, washed, chopped coarsely

cup sugar

1 cup water

1 pound strawberries, hulled

juice of 1 grapefruit

apple

cup cherries, pitted

mint leaves, to garnish

Place rhubarb, sugar and water in a saucepan, bring to boil and simmer until tender. Process rhubarb mixture in a blender or food processor with all its juices and two-thirds of the strawberries until very smooth; stir in the grapefruit juice and strain through a coarse sieve. Add enough water (about cup) to get a soup-like consistency. Refrigerate until needed. Dice apple, remaining strawberries and cherries into small bits and combine in a medium bowl. Divide strawberry and rhubarb soup among soup bowls. Spoon a pile of the diced fruit into the center of each bowl of soup and top with a mint leaf garnish.

Vanilla risotto with poached rhubarb

Rhubarb:

pound rhubarb

cup sugar

Few drops rosewater

cup water or red wine

Cut rhubarb into 1- to 2-inch lengths and put into a heavy pan with the water/wine and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover with lid. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. Stir in the rosewater when cool.

Risotto:

cup Aborio rice

2 cups milk

1 cup cream

3 Tablespoons sugar

1 vanilla bean

Bring milk, cream and sugar to a simmer. Remove from heat, add vanilla bean then let stand 30 minutes. Scrape pulp from the bean into the milk, add the rice and cook over a gentle heat for 35 minutes. Let cool and then layer into glasses with the rhubarb.

Melissa Davis is a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition.She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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