Wednesday, June 6, 2007



Stalking spring's colorful bounty



Jonathan Levitt,

Globe Correspondent


Rhubarb stalks look like pink celery and taste like the tartest gooseberries. Like mysterious foraged morel mushrooms, fussy fiddleheads, and ephemeral asparagus, cooking with local rhubarb means it's spring in New England. Thankfully it's not quite as precious as the other emblematic harbingers , and the stalks are around into the summer, then again in August.

In the garden, the hardy plant can grow just about anywhere and produce stalks every spring for at least 10 years. Forced rhubarb, which is grown in the dark, usually in Dutch greenhouses, is available year - round. It's very pink and very tender. The local crop, which is often speckled with green, and comes in thin and thick stalks, is simmered or baked with sugar and served as a dessert, which is unusual for a vegetable. But this favorite, stewed with as little sugar as possible, can also accompany pork chops.

At Henrietta's Table, bakers regularly mix rhubarb with berries for their "pie of the day." The Harvard Square restaurant is known for celebrating local produce. "We have it a few times a week right now," says manager Matt Nolan . "But we'll have it even more often once the local strawberries start coming in."

Rhubarb and strawberry pie is a New England classic, and native strawberries are about to come into season. Or top a scoop of vanilla ice cream with warm rhubarb jam and your dessert is pretty in pink.

Blue Heron Farm in Lincoln supplies the tony little shop Plum Produce, in the South End with rhubarb. It costs $6 per pound there (the price at farm stands outside the city varies; it's $2.39 at Verrill Farm in Concord, $2.59 at Wilson Farms in Lexington). Plum also offers its own jam labels, including rhubarb confiture made with rhubarb, sugar, and pectin.

Verrill has been harvesting its crop of rhubarb for almost two weeks. The farm sells the stalks, along with all sorts of pies: rhubarb-raspberry, rhubarb-mixed berry, rhubarb-strawberry, rhubarb-blueberry, and, as a special order, just plain rhubarb.

Sweet as the sour plant can be, rhubarb has a place in the savory kitchen too. Its pucker can cut through the richness of fatty meats or the fishiness of oily fish. "I like to taste the tartness," says Tony Casieri, manager of Wilson Farms. "By nature , eating rhubarb is like sucking on a lemon," he says, "but usually the only place you ever see it is in a sweet pie."

Andres Grundy, sous chef at Clio, says that in his kitchen, cooks particularly like to use rhubarb in savory dishes. Right now they're serving a brand new foie gras dish with white rhubarb (peeled and cooked in acacia honey and white port), bee pollen, a lavender sabayon , and bitter strawberry jam, which has been simmered with bitter green almonds. They also have wild ivory king salmon, glazed with licorice and served with white asparagus and rhubarb poached in verjus

Some chefs take advantage of the faded pink hue that cooked rhubarb takes on. Steven Brand of UpStairs on the Square is slow roasting salmon and serving it with white asparagus and a minty pickled rhubarb compote. "The dish is very creamy," he says, "but the rhubarb gets right through richness. I love the color, too."





Baked rhubarb with fresh ricotta


Serves 4


Instead of simmering rhubarb stalks with sugar and water, in this recipe the rhubarb is baked for 45 minutes, which is a gentler way of cooking it. When it's softened, the cooking juices are reduced until they're a deep pink color. The rhubarb and its sauce are served with fresh ricotta in individual dishes.


               6                      thick stalks     rhubarb, cut into 4-inch pieces

               1                      cup    sugar

                                       grated rind of 1 orange

               2                      cups  water, or more if needed

            1/2                      pound            fresh ricotta


1. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Have on hand an 8- or 9-inch-square baking dish.


2.  In the baking dish, combine the rhubarb, sugar, and orange rind. Add enough water to barely cover the rhubarb. Transfer the dish to the oven, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until the rhubarb is soft but not falling apart.


3.  With a slotted spoon, transfer the rhubarb to 4 shallow bowls.


4.  Pour the rhubarb cooking juices into a medium saucepan. Boil the juices over medium-high heat for 10 minutes or until they are as thick as maple syrup. Pour the syrup over the rhubarb. Serve warm or at room temperature with big spoonfuls of fresh ricotta.


—Jonathan Levitt




Rhubarb crisp


Serves 8


Serve this crisp with vanilla ice cream, vanilla yogurt, or heavy cream.




                                       Butter (for the dish)

             12                      large stalks rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces

            3/4 cup                granulated sugar

                                       juice of 1 lemon

            1/2 cup                flour


1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.


2. In a bowl, toss the rhubarb with the sugar, lemon juice, and flour. Transfer the mixture to the baking dish; set it aside.




               1                      cup    flour

            3/4                      cup    old-fashioned rolled oats

               1                      cup    dark brown sugar

            1/3                      cup    granulated sugar

               1                      Tablespoon    ground cinnamon

             12                      Tablespoons   butter, cut up  (about 1-1/2 sticks)


1. In a bowl, combine the flour, oats, brown and granulated sugar, cinnamon, and butter. With a pastry blender or fork, work the mixture until it resembles crumbs.


2. Spread the topping on the rhubarb mixture so it makes an even layer.


3.  Bake the crisp for 50 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender and the mixture is bubbling at the edges. Let the crisp sit for 5 minutes before spooning into shallow bowls.


—Sheryl Julian






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