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The pie plant

  • A bunch of freshly picked organic rhubarb

  • Rhubarb and Lamb Khoresh GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Lamb Khoresh GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb Meringue GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb Meringue GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Marzipan Squares GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb Meringue, with ingredients, pound cake and eggs GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Marzipan Squares GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Marzipan Squares, Rhubarb Meringue, with ingredients (pound cake, eggs) GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Thursday, May 18, 2017

When rhubarb arrived in the United States in the 19th century it was called pie plant. No mystery about that name! Rhubarb still usually appears in pies or pie-like desserts such as crisps and cobblers.

But rhubarb, which is native to northern Asia, has lots more culinary and other possibilities.

The Chinese have used its root as a purgative for millennia, and the Greeks and Romans used it, too.

It arrived in Europe in the 11th century. Its long journey from Asia and its effectiveness made it costly. For six centuries its role was purely medicinal. When Shakespeare’s Macbeth exclaims “What rhubarb . . . what purgative drug would scour these English hence?” he was thinking of the internal scourings of rhubarb root. And when Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland realizes she has wrongly suspected her host of murdering his wife, she reflects, “Neither poison nor sleeping potions were to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”

Austen was writing at the beginning of the 19th century. By then rhubarb was grown throughout northern Europe, and already a 1783 English recipe for rhubarb tart showed cooks taking advantage of its juicy stems. Writing in “American Frugal Housewife” in 1829, Lydia Maria Child notes it as “The earliest ingredient for pies . . . but these are dear pies because they take an enormous quantity of sugar.” Child gives “Persian apple” as an alternate name for rhubarb, while Eliza Leslie, writing in 1851, says the English called it “spring fruit.” Clearly its arrival before apples or berries endeared it to northern people longing for a fruit pie.

But while pie recipes are common, and chutney and jam recipes appear occasionally, for a trove of interestingly different rhubarb recipes you have to mine books about foods of other times and countries. Often what makes these dishes exciting is the combination of rhubarb with complementary ingredients.

Iran, for example, has a rhubarb khoresh that combines lamb with rhubarb and herbs. Denmark’s has breakfast rolls filled with rhubarb and marzipan. Finland has a summery drink of rhubarb and lemons called raparperijuoma.

In England rhubarb is a beloved garden crop so there is a wealth of recipes. Many team it with dairy ingredients. These include baked goods made with butter and served with custard, rhubarb fool made by stirring cooked rhubarb into thick cream, and the rhubarb yogurt found in every supermarket.

Popular TV cook Nigella Lawson gives recipes for a spicy Brown Sauce using rhubarb, and for a Rhubarb Cornmeal Cake and Rhubarb Schnapps. Other recipes in English cookbooks include Rhubarb and Kumquat Cake, Rhubarb and Banana Compote, Rhubarb Gingerbread, and Rhubarb and Coriander Sauce for fish.

Closer to home, in “The Best of Shaker Cooking” (1985), Amy Bess Miller and Persis Fuller gathered no fewer than 13 rhubarb recipes, mostly from Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield. Several are distinctive. There’s a Yorkshire pudding with rhubarb, rhubarb tea, rhubarb wine, rhubarb and cherry jam, and Rhubarb Scallop with Meringue.

Orange zest, strawberries and raspberries make good flavor partners to rhubarb, and ginger is the perfect spice. Maple syrup adds both flavor and sweetness.

The sour element in rhubarb is oxalic acid. It cleans pans that rhubarb is cooked in, and it can take black water stains out of wood. You can reduce it by dropping cut rhubarb pieces into lightly salted water for 20 minutes, then dry and use as normal. Rhubarb leaves have toxic amounts of oxalic acid, so don’t eat them. Stick to the stalks, and try them in the unusual recipes below – and in favorite pies too.

PERSIAN LAMB AND RHUBARB KHORESH

Iranian khoreshes are mixtures of meat with fruity ingredients. This recipe is adapted from one from Leyden Glen Farm, which specializes in pasture-raised sheep, and sells it at Amherst Farmers Market. Rhubarb is now also available there from Sunset Farm. Spices lengthen the list of ingredients, but that does not mean the dish is difficult. It needs little work and won’t go wrong if you cook it slowly.

3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

1½ pounds lamb stew meat or 2 pounds bone-in shoulder lamb chops

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoon powdered coriander

1½ teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¾ cup tomato juice

Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Salt to taste

1 pound rhubarb (6-7 sticks), cut in 1-inch pieces

½ cup raisins, preferably golden (optional)

2 tablespoon sugar

¼ cup finely chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Heat the oil or butter in a casserole over medium heat and brown the lamb in it. (If using chops cut each into 2-3 pieces beforehand.) Remove them from the pan and stir the onion and garlic into the same oil.

Cook gently without browning for a couple of minutes then stir in the coriander, cumin and cinnamon.

Return the meat to the pan, and add the tomato sauce plus enough water or stock to come three quarters of the way up the lamb. Season lightly with freshly grated nutmeg and salt. Bring to a boil on top of the stove. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and place in a 250-degree oven and cook for 2½ hours, turning the meat over half way through. Alternately cook in a slow cooker for 5 hours on low.

Remove the meat from the pot and pull the bones out of it.

Meanwhile cut the rhubarb into 1-inch piece and leave in a bowl of lightly salted water for 20 minutes, then drain and pat dry. Mix it with the meat, golden raisins (if using), and sugar in the pot. Stir in half the mint.

Bring to simmering point on top of the stove then transfer to the oven for half an hour. Remove and taste. If you want more spices, add them. If the flavor is too sour, add more sugar. If the stew is too saucy simmer with the lid off to reduce.

Serve over basmati rice, couscous, or rice pilaf garnished with the rest of the mint and the chopped parsley.

RHUBARB AND PARSNIP CHUTNEY

Though parsnips come in late-fall, they are weather warriors that withstand icy winters, so they can be dug when the ground unfreezes in early April. You can find these spring-dug parsnips, often nestled against early rhubarb, in farmers markets. This is a happy coincidence as their sweetness complements the tartness of rhubarb in this unusual chutney for serving with meats and grilled foods.

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut in bite-size pieces

5-6 stems rhubarb (about 1pound), trimmed and cut in 1-inch pieces

½ cup chopped dates or dark raisins

2½ cups white vinegar

1 tablespoon powdered ginger

1 teaspoon powdered coriander

½ chopped candied or crystallized ginger (optional)

12 black peppercorns

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium-large carrots, peeled and coarsely grated

2 cups light brown sugar

Put the onion, celery and garlic in a large pan with a cup of water. Cook, covered, for 5-6 minutes.

Add the parsnips, rhubarb, dates, vinegar, ginger, coriander, crystallized ginger, peppercorns and salt. Stirring frequently, simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes or until the parsnips are tender and the rhubarb and dates have broken down.

Stir in the carrots and sugar and cook for another 5-10 minutes until the mixture has the sheen and density of jam. Taste. At this point you can add more salt, ginger or sugar to taste.

Cook for another minute or two after any addition. Pack in sterilized jars and leave covered with a clean towel until cooled to room temperature. Then cover with the caps. Store in a cool, dark place.

RHUBARB MERINGUE

Meringue makes this easy dessert look special. It’s delicious too. The recipe comes from Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield and is described in “The Best of Shaker Cooking” by Amy Bess Miller and Persis Fuller, who call is Rhubarb Scallop — possibly because the ingredients are layered like scalloped potatoes. Thinly sliced pound cake is a major ingredient. You could use leftovers of homemade pound cake, or make life super-easy with frozen pound cake. Exact amounts here depend on the size of your dish and the number of people to be served. These quantities are enough for 4-5.

About 1 pound (6-7 stalks) to make 2-3 cups cut in ½-inch pieces

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

2 tablespoons butter

About 12-15 slices pound cake, about ⅓ -inch thick

About ¼ cup warm maple syrup

3 egg whites

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon white sugar

Put the rhubarb pieces in a bowl, cover with cold water, stir in the salt and let stand for 20 minutes. Now drain and pat the rhubarb dry. Toss it with the brown sugar, cornstarch and ginger.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a shallow baking dish (roughly 7 by 11 inches) with a little of the butter. Cover the base with a layer of pound cake slices cut and arranged so there are no gaps between them.

Put half the rhubarb mixture on top making it as even as possible. Cut half the remaining butter into small bits and scatter them on the rhubarb.

Now add another layer of cake slices, top with the remaining rhubarb and cut-up butter, then add a final layer of cake slices.

Press down to compact everything a little. Pour on the warmed maple syrup, using just enough to moisten the surface. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 25 minutes.

Remove it from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees

Make the meringue by whipping the egg white until it forms soft clouds. Add 6 tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating after each addition until the egg whites look glossy. Pile this meringue on top of the dessert, letting it stand in peaks rather than smoothing it out. Sprinkle on the last teaspoon of sugar.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a pale caramel color. Serve either warm or at room temperature. (If it’s more convenient you can delay adding the meringue for several hours after baking the cake and rhubarb.)

RHUBARB AND MARZIPAN SQUARES

This recipe is inspired by breakfast rolls in Copenhagen. Marzipan — or almond paste — is not a common partner to rhubarb, but they taste fantastic together.

1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast

3 cups unbleached flour

1½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

6 tablespoons butter at room temperature

½ cup white sugar

About ⅔ cup warm milk

3 stalks (about ½ pound) rhubarb, washed and trimmed

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

6-8 ounces’ marzipan or almond paste

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Put the yeast and ¼ cup of warm water in a small bowl. Let stand until frothy while you mix the flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.

Cut the butter in small pieces and rub them into the flour mixture, then stir in the white sugar.

Pour the yeast mixture into the center, with half the milk, mix then knead into a dough, adding more milk, a little at a time, just until it sticks neither to your hands in the bowl — about 8-10 minutes by hand or 4-5 minutes with an electric mixer.

Cover the bowl with plastic and set it in a warm place. When the dough has doubled in bulk – about 1½ hours — slap it down hard on the counter. Knead it again briefly and set aside for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, while the dough is rising, cut the rhubarb into ½-inch pieces. Cover them with water in a medium bowl, and add the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt. Let stand for 20 minutes then drain and rinse. (This removes some acid thus reducing the quantity of sugar.) Put them into a small saucepan with the brown sugar and 2 teaspoons water. Cover and cook over low heat until the juice is running.

Mix the cornstarch with a tablespoon of cold water, stir in a little hot juice from the pan then mix into the rhubarb and cook until thickened. Set aside to cool.

Roll out the dough and cut it into 8 4½ -inch squares. Take pieces of the marzipan or almond paste about the size of a walnut, flatten them, and put one piece in the middle of each square. Top with rhubarb. Pull the 4 corners of the square together into the center and twist to make a topknot. Press the edges closed for form seams from the center to each corner.

Place the squares on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, cover, and let rise for about an hour or until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Dust with confectioners’ sugar while hot.

RHUBARB GINGERBREAD

This tender gingerbread has a layer of rhubarb in the center. The combination of rhubarb with ginger is one of Mother Nature’s perfect pairings.

1 stick softened butter

¾ cup light brown sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups flour

¾ cup molasses or a mixture of molasses and golden syrup or honey

2 ounces (about 12 pieces) crystallized or preserved ginger (optional)

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda

3 tablespoons milk

1 pound rhubarb (about 6 biggish stems), washed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1-2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease a shallow baking pan or a deep-dish pie pan of 6-cup capacity.

Cream the butter and sugar together and when mixed add the eggs one at a time, beating in each one with 1 tablespoon of the flour.

Mix in the molasses and the powdered ginger and chopped ginger if you are using it. When thoroughly blended, fold mix in the rest of the flour.

Stir the baking soda into the milk until it has dissolved, then mix it into the gingerbread mixture.

Put half the mixture in the prepared pan. Scatter the rhubarb on top. Cover with the rest of the mixture.

Bake for 30 minutes, then place a sheet of foil on top to protect it, and bake at 300 degrees for about 25 minutes more. Insert a toothpick just into the top layer of gingerbread to check for doneness. It should come out clean.

Let cool and then dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream.