At the tail end of a winter that’s lasted too long, New Englanders rejoice in the sight of crocus shoots poking up through gritty snow, the arrival of red-breasted robins, or the joy of later sunsets. Those are all fine, but my favorite harbinger of spring is seeing a bin of bright red rhubarb in the market.
To me, rhubarb’s tart flavor is a sharp wake-up call signaling that spring has arrived. When I see rhubarb, I imagine warm weather. I taste puddings, sauces, pies, ice cream. I also remember when a little boy of about five, seeing rhubarb in a supermarket for the first time, exclaimed, “Look, mom, red celery!”
Botanically, like celery, rhubarb is a vegetable and in some countries, it’s used as one. In Iran, it’s an ingredient in stews; in Afghanistan it’s mixed with spinach. I think of rhubarb mostly for desserts, but it’s more versatile than that. Cooked and blended into cream, it makes a lovely sauce for salmon. The Italian liqueur called rabarbara is made with rhubarb and considered healthful.
For centuries, though, rhubarb was a medicine not a food. Its origins are in China, where its dried roots were used as a laxative, as they were in Greece, Rome, and, by the sixteenth century, England. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that English cooks began cooking the stalks of rhubarb, sweetening them, and using them in pies. That use became so common that, in the U.S., rhubarb was known as “pie-fruit.”
Once people realized how delightful the flavor was, they began cooking rhubarb into puddings, sauces, jams, crisps, and ice creams. Rhubarb plays well with others. It’s often combined with strawberries, but it’s also a good companion for blueberries, cherries, apples, raspberries, oranges, lemons, and ginger.
A friend gave me this Danish pudding recipe. Whenever I make it, spring has arrived – no matter what the weather is doing.
Rhubarb flummery (A version of rødgrød med fløde)
4 cups rhubarb cut into one-inch pieces
¾ cup sugar
Grated rind of one orange or lemon
½ cup of water
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Heavy cream or crème fraiche
Combine rhubarb, ¾ cup sugar, orange rind, and water in a saucepan. Bring slowly to a boil, cover, and simmer for two to three minutes or until rhubarb is soft but still holds its shape. Do not overcook.
Blend cornstarch with a small amount of cold water. Stir gently into the rhubarb mixture.
Bring to a boil and cook, stirring gently until clear and thickened.
Pour into a serving dish. Serve slightly warm topped with cream or crème fraiche, or plain. Serves four.