April showers bring May flowers, but did you know they also bring rhubarb? Yup. Rhubarb was initially cultivated in China for its medicinal qualities. In the 18th century, people in Britain and America began figuring out ways to prepare it for eating.
Rhubarb resembles oversized celery ablaze in color, but actually it is related to buckwheat. It grows in large bunches with leaves the size of elephant’s ears.
Never eat the leaves. The oxalic acid (found in almost all green leafy vegetables including spinach) is very concentrated and will have toxic effects.
Rhubarb can serve as a culinary soloist, but is best enjoyed in the company of other fruits and vegetables. Think of it as a vegetable that’s best treated like a fruit.
At the Waverly Farmers’ Market, I talked with Cinda Sebastian from the Gardener’s Gourmet in Westminster. “Rhubarb is a picky perennial,” she said. “It has to like where it is grown. Terroir is very important to rhubarb.”
She ought to know. Her family has been the owners/farmers of the same spot since 1946.
Rhubarb is ready to use when it is firm, fleshy, glossy and bright red. It is at the peak of its season locally from now until July.
I went over to the Fountain Farms stand where Ed Fountain usually presides. His farm in Greensboro, MD., goes back to a land grant in 1658. Ed had all sorts of goodies, but I was there for first-of-the-season Eastern Shore strawberries, a great companion to rhubarb.
The berries will be sweeter in June, but for baking they are just right.
RHUBARB STRAWBERRY TART
This recipe can make one 12-inch tart crust or one 9-inch tart shell and four 4-inch tarts.
2 cups flour
12 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter, cut in dice and frozen
4 tablespoons sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon iced cold water
pinch of salt
Pre-heat oven to 375º
Lightly butter a 12-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. And dust it with flour.
(A 9-inch tart pan and the small tartlet pans can be treated the same way.)
Place the flour and butter in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse for 5 seconds. Add the sugar and egg yolks and pulse for 10 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons iced water and salt and pulse on and off until dough forms a solid ball in the processor. If the ball doesn’t start forming after a few on and offs add the second tablespoon of water.
Remove dough from processor, flatten slightly, cover and let rest for 30 minutes before using.
Use a rolling pin to get the dough into a thick circle and then transfer it to the prepared tart pan and press it out with my fingers. This method assures that the dough will get into the corrugated edges and have a good-looking presentation when the fluted rim is removed. Smooth dough evenly and prick in several places with a sharp-tined fork.
Line with parchment paper and fill with metal pie weights or raw beans. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven to a level cooling rack. Leave the oven on.
Carefully (they will be hot) remove the weights and parchment paper. Usually bringing four parts of the parchment together and lifting straight up will do the trick. Or just wait until they cool.
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
4 cups sliced rhubarb (about 8 slender stalks)
½ cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus 1 tablespoon sugar (multiple uses)
2 tablespoons honey
4 cups, strawberries, quartered or halved
¼ cup Grand Marnier (orange juice with a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla may be substituted)
¼ cup instant tapioca
1/3 cup almonds, ground with 1 tablespoon of sugar
Spread melted butter on the bottom of a shallow baking dish and arrange rhubarb in a single layer. Sprinkle the sugar and drizzle the honey over the rhubarb and roast for 20 minutes.
Remove from oven. Leave the oven on. Stir rhubarb into strawberry mixture. Stir the tapioca into the filling.
To Assemble the Tart:
Sprinkle the almond/sugar evenly mixture over the bottom of the crust. Spoon the filling into the crust making sure it is spread to the edges.
Set the tart on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. If you are making a 9-inch tart and 4 tartlets, center the 2 oven shelves as best you can. Set tart on one shelf and tartlets on the other. Check the tartlets after 20 minutes to make sure crust is not getting too brown. They can be removed from oven and placed on cooling racks.
Here’s another way to enjoy the vegetable:
4 cups rhubarb, in 1-inch slices (about 5 large stalks trimmed top and bottom – no leaves!)
3/4 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons sugar (in two uses)
¼ cup honey
2 medium/large red onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoons minced chives
1 lemon skin on, quartered and finely sliced, seeds removed
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup golden raisins (or other raisins on hand)
1 tablespoon whole mustard seeds (or 2 tablespoons grainy mustard)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
3 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup candied ginger bits (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 400º.
Place sliced rhubarb in a single layer on a baking dish and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar and drizzle honey over all. Roast for ¾ hour. Remove from oven.
In medium sized non-reactive saucepan, place onions, chives, and all other ingredients. Stir and then stir in the rhubarb with any juice that may have accumulated in the pan. Stir over medium heat until chutney starts to simmer. Lower heat under the saucepan and cook slowly, stirring frequently for 45 minutes.
Place in clean (just out of the dishwasher) jars with tight lids or non-PVC plastic containers. Refrigerate when cool. Yields approximately 4 cups. Will keep for two weeks.