Ruby-Red Rhubarb


I  adore rhubarb in all its various forms. As a child, growing up in the far north Scottish islands, I would stab a fresh-plucked, ruby-red stick into the sugar bowl and scrunch it in my mouth to release the sweet-sour juices. Lacking other summer fruits, my mother poached tiny chunks in a clove-scented syrup, put up pots of thick crimson jams and baked rhubarb pies — sans strawberries.

Skeptics may shudder at the "pucker-power" of rhubarb, but that's because they've never tasted even one of the hundreds of dishes that depend on its unique, zippy, wake-up signature — and certainly never delighted in my childhood culinary experience.

The ruby-red sticks, called petioles, with their fans of moss-green leaves, are one of the first edibles to appear in spring. The thick stalks are edible, but the leaves contain oxalic acid, and so are highly toxic. Cut off and discard!

Though commonly mistaken as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a close relative of sorrel and a member of the buckwheat family; thus, it's classed as a vegetable. It originated in Asia more than 2,000 years ago, and was cultivated only for its medicinal qualities.

Through the centuries, this caused prices to rise. In 1542, in France, rhubarb sold for 10 times the price of cinnamon; in England, in 1657, it sold for more than twice the price of opium.

In America, rhubarb did not come into its own until the late 1790s, when an unnamed Maine gardener obtained seed or root stock from Europe. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts — and its popularity skyrocketed. By 1822, rhubarb was being sold in markets, and Colonial housewives were transforming it into pies, cobblers, sauces, jams, cakes and "shrubs" (sweet juice spiked with liquor.)

However, cookbooks like the early Joy of Cooking did nothing to enhance rhubarb, noting that "only by the wildest stretch of the imagination can rhubarb be included in this (fruit) chapter but its tart flavor … makes it a reasonable facsimile when cooked with other fruit." Thus, it probably came about that rhubarb is commonly paired with strawberries.

Rhubarb appears in U.S. supermarkets as early as January, and continues to be stocked into May. Three to five stalks make about one pound. Look for stalks that are crisp and flat, not curled or limp. If leaves are attached, cut off and discard. Do not peel the stalks. They are high in vitamin C and dietary fiber.

To store rhubarb, wrap loosely in plastic wrap and place in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to one week. As rhubarb is highly acidic, even with the addition of sugar, cook only in non-aluminum pots. Cooked and raw rhubarb both freeze well.

Rhubarb, Simply Poached


May be served over ice-cream, sponge cake or, do as the Brits do, and spoon a puddle of poached rhubarb into the center of a dish of custard pudding.

1 lb. (4 to 5 stalks) rhubarb
1/3 cup sugar or to taste
1/3 cup orange juice

Wash and wipe the rhubarb stalks. With a sharp knife, cut in slices about 1/2-inch thick. Set aside.

In a medium pot, place the sugar and orange juice. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Add the rhubarb. Bring to a simmer.

Partially cover and cook 25 minutes, or until rhubarb is tender. Taste syrup. Stir in additional sugar to taste.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 87; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 22 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 3 mg.


Baked Chicken Breasts With Tangy Dressing


3 Tbsps. vegetable oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 cup thinly sliced rhubarb
3 Tbsps. brown sugar
3 cups seasoned croutons
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
11/2 tsps. lemon-pepper seasoning
1 tsp. dried rosemary
4 chicken breasts
paprika to sprinkle (optional)

Preheat oven to 375°.

Spray a 9-inch baking dish with nonstick vegetable spray.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add the onion and rhubarb, and 2 tablespoons water. Sauté until softened. Stir in the brown sugar, croutons and ginger. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread over the bottom of the prepared baking dish.

In a cup, mix the lemon-pepper seasoning and the rosemary. Rub the mixture over the chicken breasts. Arrange on top of the crouton mixture, skin-side up. Sprinkle with paprika (optional).

Bake for 30 minutes. Cover lightly with foil.

Bake 30 minutes longer, or until juices run clear when knife is inserted in thickest part.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 564 ; protein, 39 g; carbohydrates, 30 g; fat, 31 g; cholesterol, 111 mg; sodium, 678 mg.


Fish in Rhubarb Sauce, Sephardic-style


Any thick fleshy fish, like cod or salmon, may be used for this.

2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1/2 cup marinara sauce
1/3 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
1/2 tsp. cumin
2 tsps. sugar or to taste
1 lb. cod fillet, cut in 3/4-inch chunks
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
hot fluffy rice or noodles (optional)

In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat.

Add the onion and rhubarb.

Reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring often until softened, about 20 minutes.

Add the marinara sauce, vegetable broth, cumin and 2 teaspoons sugar. Mix well.

Bring to simmer. Cook 10 minutes, or until mixture is thick. Add more sugar, if needed, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cod.

Raise heat to medium. Bring to simmer and cook for 1 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of fish.

May be spooned over top hot cooked rice or noodles.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 207; protein, 22 g; carbohydrates, 10 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 42 mg; sodium, 212 mg.


Rhubarb-Cranberry Chutney


This is a taste-tingling accompaniment to meat, poultry and fish dishes.

1 medium onion, cut in chunks 3 stalks rhubarb, sliced about 1-inch thick
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsps. brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. each ground cloves and nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/3 cup dried cranberries

Place the onion and rhubarb in the food processor. Pulse 5 to 8 seconds to make 1/4-inch chunks. Set aside.

In a large heavy saucepan, mix the sugar, vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, salt, curry powder, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

Add the onion and rhubarb.

Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook 20 minutes, stirring often.

Add the dates and cranberries. Simmer, covered, for 15 minutes longer, or until thickened. Stir often. Spoon into jars.

Keeps in the refrigerator up to a month.

Makes about 1 pint.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 22; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 74 mg.


Pineapple-Rhubarb Crisp


To make pareve, substitute margarine for the butter.

4 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 cup sugar
11/2 Tbsps. flour
1 cup crushed pineapple, lightly drained


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. (scant) nutmeg
6 Tbsps. unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 375°.

Spray a 2-quart casserole with nonstick vegetable spray.

Toss the rhubarb with flour and sugar. Stir in the pineapple. Transfer to prepared casserole.

To Prepare the Topping: In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cut in the butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over rhubarb mixture in casserole.

Bake for 30 minutes. Cover loosely with foil.

Bake 15 minutes longer, until golden-brown and bubbling at the edges.

Serves 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 488; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 95 mg; fat, 12 g; cholesterol, 31 mg; sodium, 22 mg.


Springtime Fruit Fool


I've adapted this from a recipe given to me by my Scottish cousin, who found it on a Sainsbury (British supermarket chain) container label. A "fool" is an old-time English dessert of puréed fruit and whipped cream.

3 cups rhubarb, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
1/2 cup sugar plus to taste
1 Tbsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 large ripe banana, thinly sliced
1 cup light sour cream

Place the rhubarb, 1/2 cup sugar, ginger and 2 tablespoons water in a medium pot.

Stir and bring to simmer over medium heat. Cook 15 minutes, or until rhubarb is breaking up. Stir often.

Add the banana. Purée in the food processor. Pour into a bowl and chill.

Whisk in the sour cream.

If needed, add sugar to taste.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 148; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 31 g; fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 13 mg; sodium, 53 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.



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