Rhubarb Rules

It's turning up in stores now and cooks jump for joy at the prospect of great desserts using the distinctive sweet-tart stalks

Published May 9, 2006
The Oregonian/Food Day

Oregon's bounty makes a pastry chef's job a pure joy most of the year. It's easy to be inspired by the fresh, ripe fruit close at hand: summer's cherries, melons and peaches; fall's figs, quince and pears. Dessert-making through the winter months, however, usually involves putting the umpteenth spin on a ho-hum palette of chocolate-and-nut browns.

So by December most pastry chefs are dreaming about spring's rhubarb, its rosy hue and distinctive sweet-tart tang. Now that it's in season, I can't wait to get some rhubarb and bake a pie. Or an upside-down cake. I'll incorporate it wherever I can.

Rhubarb has a special place in my repertoire for good reason. When Julia Child visited Portland in 2000, she ate at Higgins Restaurant & Bar, where I was the pastry chef. I felt a pang of envy when I saw a picture of Julia, with Greg Higgins and the cooks who had prepared her dinner the previous night, tacked up on the kitchen wall. I had always hoped to meet this icon, and it seemed I had missed this rite of passage. In the end, I received something better: news that Julia had paid me the ultimate compliment, ordering a second rhubarb galette after finishing her first.

Cooking with rhubarb calls for a generous hand with sugar. Unapologetically astringent on its own, rhubarb stewed with sugar becomes a soupy, silky version of applesauce. I grew up eating rhubarb from my grandparents' Ohio garden prepared this way, and it remains my all-time favorite.

If you're looking for a complement to rhubarb, raspberries or strawberries (the "yin" to rhubarb's "yang") are well-loved. It also has an affinity with orange, ginger and creamy ingredients such as mascarpone, custard and white chocolate.

Rhubarb releases a lot of liquid when cooked, so don't be afraid to discard some of the juice from a cooked mixture, especially if you're serving it with ice cream or in shortcakes. Occasionally a recipe will recommend partially cooking rhubarb for pies, cobblers and other items before they're finished in the oven. Avoid this extra step by tossing the sliced rhubarb with all of the sugar called for in the recipe. In 10 minutes the sugar will have begun to draw the juices out of the fruit. If you are using a thickener, dissolve it in this juice. I like to use ground tapioca or cornstarch, but 3 to 4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for every 11/2 pounds of fruit will do the trick.

However it's used, rhubarb is sure to cause a stir in the spring. A Brit will tell you that "rhubarb" was once used to describe the noise made by actors who repeated the word randomly and in different intonations to create the effect of hubbub on a set. If you listen closely, you can hear the "rhubarb" of pastry chefs all over town, celebrating its arrival.

Ellen Jackson is former pastry chef at Higgins Restaurant & Bar and a Portland food writer.

©2006 The Oregonian

Original recipes included:

Rhubarb Chutney
Rhubarb Tart for Julia
Warm Rhubarb Upside Down Cake