23 May 2006
Rhubarb is one of those midwestern ‘specialties’ that I’ve never tasted, despite leaving the southwest almost 2 decades ago (with a brief stop in the mid-Atlantic). I toyed with the idea last year, but never got around to buying any. So when I heard them talking about rhubarb during the Market Report segment of KCRW’s Good Food podcast, I decided this would be the year.
Some brief research at the rhubarbinfo site revealed why I might have never encountered it before: it requires winter temps below 40F and summer temps averaging below 75F. I also learned that “some folks say the finest quality rhubarb is grown in Michigan, Ontario, Canada, and other northern states in the United States.” I was scratching my head at a comment during Good Food that rhubarb is year-round in the Midwest. As far as I know, it’s very seasonal. In fact, our CSA starts deliveries in June and the rhubarb season is petering out at that point. But according to rhubarbinfo, it can be forced in greenhouses, which may account for the statement I heard.
So last week during my trip to the farmer’s market, I checked to see who had it available. My aspargus lady didn’t have any, but our favorite purveyor of apple cider did, so I bought it from them. When I mentioned I’d never even tasted rhubarb, she tucked in a paper with recipes, but I decided to scour the internet anyway. I was hoping to find something intriguingly different. I did come across some salads and salad dressings, and quite a few ‘savory’ treatments of rhubarb – dishes like lentils curried with rhubarb and potatoes, baked chicken and rhubarb, or Persian rhubarb stew.
But in the end, I decided upon this recipe for rhubarb crunch from the epicurean site for my inaugural attempt. (Actually, I was toying between this and the caramel rhubarb cobbler, it was my mother-in-law who cast the deciding vote for the crunch.) And what a treat it was! The taste was a very complex mixture of sweet and tart. My mother-in-law says that rhubarb tastes like raspberries without the seeds. That’s certainly there, but there was another flavor note beyond the raspberry, that I couldn’t quite pin down. The native midwesterner who’d stopped in right at dessert time enjoyed the fact that this was purely rhubarb, with no strawberries to mess with the flavor. Jonski Papa was glad he ate some hot out of the oven (instead of waiting until later). Z-boy tried it, but didn’t like it – T-boy and C-boy just passed. I detected a distinct caramelized element – probably due to the presence of the bottom layer of crust. I’m going to use that method when I make peach crisp during peach season.
Tip: as written, step 3 in the recipe is to make a simple syrup with cornstarch that you pour over rhubarb before baking. Given the time needed for it to boil and then clarify, it makes sense to start this first. Because I sliced the rhubarb first, without paying attention to the complete recipe, I sprinkled a tablespoon or two of raw brown sugar on the rhubarb as it sat in the measuring cup – I don’t know that it added anything to the final product, though.
Tip 2: the recipe says “serve with lots of ice cream” – we think it’s better to serve with just a small bit of ice cream, so you don’t overwhelm the rhubarb.