The Joy of Rhubarb

Food Writer Jim Dixon on Spring

By Jim Dixon March 1999

No strawberries needed

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.

"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."

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.

Red Fife Olive Oil Cake with Rhubarb

Another of our favorite rhubarb recipes