When the first deep red stalks of local rhubarb show up around the first of May, I'm reminded that once again I forgot to obtain a chunk of root wad from a neighbor for my own back yard. The stuff grows like a weed here in the damp Pacific Northwest, and most of those who's gardens are graced with a perennial clump don't even eat it. Maybe next year I'll remember. This year I'll settle for the rhubarb I find at the Farmers Market.
For now I'm happy to be able to eat fresh rhubarb, a flavorful harbinger of the warm, dry weather to come, a potion to help forget the rainy winter. My mother lives just down the street, and I enlist her to make rhubarb pie (without any strawberries, please; I really don't like the popular combination, preferring the tart rhubarb on its own). I mostly cook it in bread pudding and sometimes in a simple crisp, but my favorite way of eating rhubarb is lightly steamed and sprinkled with a bit of sugar.
Rinse and trim the stalks, cutting away any of the toxic leaves (they're loaded with oxalic acid). Split any really fat stalks, and cut into short, bite-sized pieces. Cook them with just a little water in a covered saucepan for about 10 minutes or until tender. Sprinkle with sugar to taste and eat while still warm.
For bread pudding, cut the crusts from 4-5 slices of stale bread (I use a chewy Italian loaf from Grand Central Bakery). You can also dry the bread in a low oven for awhile if it's not stale. Cut into cubes. Beat 2-3 eggs with 2 cups of milk (or a combination of milk and plain yogurt; a little creme fraiche is also a nice addition) and add the bread cubes. Let them soak for at least 30 minutes; the longer the better.
Mix about 2 cups of raw, diced rhubarb with a cup of sugar. Sometimes I add a a few tablespoons of Port, but not always. You can also add a teaspoon or two of lemon juice or some fresh lemon zest. When the bread has soaked long enough, mix the fruit and custard together.
Grease a baking dish, pie pan, or any fairly heavy vessel that can go in the oven (I've made bread pudding in a cast iron frying pan with good results). Pour in the bread-custard-fruit mix and dot with small pieces of unsalted butter to help it brown. You can place the baking dish in a shallow pan with enough water to come and inch or two up the outside. This water bath -- a bain marie in classical French cooking -- keeps the pudding from browning on the bottom of the pan, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. I've cooked lots of bread puddings without it, and they come out fine (and I sort of like the brown bottom).
Cook at 375 F for about 40 minutes or until the custard is set and the top is brown. Cover the dish for the first 20-30 minutes if you don't want a slightly crunchy browned top and a wetter custard. Remove the lid or foil for that last 10-15 minute so it can brown a little.
I like bread pudding plain, but it's also real good with vanilla ice cream or caramel sauce.