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Bold color and taste make rhubarb a perfect bridge between winter and spring.



Published: Wed, April 27, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bold color and taste make rhubarb a perfect bridge between winter and spring.

By CECE SULLIVAN

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

SEATTLE -- It's not surprising rhubarb fails to get the respect it deserves. Its leaves are poisonous and its stalk is lemony-tart. It's a vegetable that's most often served as a fruit, but not embraced by either tribe. Indeed a search through several fruit-and-vegetable books yielded very few references to rhubarb. The lowly rutabaga was given more consideration.

Even when presented with a rhubarb dessert bar for testing on a recent Friday afternoon, it was hard to get our tasters to bite. One claimed a traumatic experience with her mother's overly tart experiment. "I'll never touch it again," she said emphatically. Another cynic added, "Rhubarb? What's the point when there are so many other good fruits?"

Ah. But that's exactly the point. Many of those "other fruits" aren't at their best right now, and rhubarb bridges the seasons of winter and spring with a boldness of color and taste.

Hothouse rhubarb has been available since January, and the season often lasts through early spring.

"The hothouse is the perfect environment for growing rhubarb," explains Cindy Moore of the Washington Rhubarb Growers Association. "Because of the warmth and dampness in the hothouse, all of the plant's energy goes into the stalk, which makes them tender and more pliable."

Hothouse rhubarb does not need peeling, but field harvests can become stringy. Pare the stalks with a vegetable peeler or pull the strings with a small paring knife.

Although field rhubarb is usually ready for harvest around mid-April, "because of this winter's warm weather, we'll have some ready [early]," said Moore. The season should last through September.

Change the profile

The secret to cooking with rhubarb successfully is to think of it as the tart ingredient in a well-balanced sweet-and-sour sauce. It's the same chemistry that makes the marriage of rhubarb and strawberries a classic. Oranges and cherries, brown sugar, honey and maple syrup also change rhubarb's brash profile. It takes a surprising turn as a sauce when paired with the richness of duck or salmon, or the mildness of fresh halibut. And for pure, ruby-colored jams and chutneys, nothing can top the brilliance of rhubarb.

When buying rhubarb, choose stalks that are firm, plump and crisp, with smooth reddish skins. Check both ends for decay, which may be a sign of loose, spongy tissue in the center of the stalk.

The leaves contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid and should be removed before purchasing. Rhubarb will keep up to seven days when sealed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

One pound raw rhubarb equals 3/4 cup cooked. Don't use an aluminum pan for cooking rhubarb because its acidity will react with the metal.

It freezes well for up to 10 months. Wash, trim and cut the stalks into lengths that will fit your freezer containers. Freezer bags, freezer jars and plastic containers can all be used.

To preserve both the color and flavor of the fruit, blanch the cut rhubarb for 1 minute in boiling water, drain and plunge into a bowl of icewater to stop the cooking. Drain, pat dry and pack into the containers, leaving ? inch headspace. It can also be frozen in a heavy syrup of 2 cups sugar to 4 cups water.

Sources: The Rhubarb Compendium; "Chez Panisse Fruit" by Alice Waters; "The Fruit and Vegetable Stand" by Barry Ballister

SOUR CREAM-RHUBARB COFFEE CAKE

Nonstick cooking spray

Topping:

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1/2 cup finely chopped macadamia nuts

1/3 cup flaked coconut

1 teaspoon ground cinnamonBatter:

11/2 cups packed brown sugar

1/2 cup solid shortening

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sour cream

11/2 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

To prepare topping: Combine granulated sugar, melted butter, macadamia nuts, coconut and cinnamon with clean fingers until thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

To prepare batter: In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat brown sugar and shortening together until fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Sift together flour, soda and salt. Add dry mixture alternately with sour cream to sugar mixture, beating 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat about 10 seconds to blend. Stir in the rhubarb.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle topping evenly over the batter. Bake on center oven rack about 45 to 50 minutes. Test in the center of the cake with a toothpick. It -it should have just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool completely before cutting.

Adapted from "The Rhubarb Compendium"

RHUBARB-COCONUT GLORIES

Nonstick cooking spray

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour, divided

11/4 cups sugar, divided

1/2 cup butter

2 eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup finely diced rhubarb

1/2 cup shredded coconut

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

For a crust, mix together 1 cup flour and 1/4 cup sugar. Cut in butter with pastry blender. Mix well with fingers. Press into bottom of a greased 8-inch square pan. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 15 minutes.

Mix 1 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons flour. Stir in beaten eggs, then mix in lemon zest, lemon juice, rhubarb, coconut and vanilla. Pour this mixture over hot baked crust. Return to oven for 30 minutes. Cool in pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

PAN-ROASTED SALMON WITH RHUBARB-CURRANT AU JUSSauce:

2 stalks rhubarb, about 4 ounces

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

11/2 tablespoons minced shallots

1/4 cup red currant jelly

2 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Salmon:

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound salmon fillet

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon green pistachio nuts, minced

To prepare the sauce: Pull the strings from the rhubarb and cut into a 1/4-inch dice; measure 3/4 cup. In a small saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots, and saute 2 minutes. Then add rhubarb, jelly and water, stirring to melt. Simmer 11/2 minutes. (Some of the rhubarb will break down, but the sauce will still be slightly chunky.) Remove from heat and stir in salt and pepper. Set aside while cooking salmon.

To prepare the salmon: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and heat. Put salmon into pan skin-side up and brown about 2 minutes or until fish can be turned easily. Turn and place on center oven rack. Bake a total of 12 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish tests done in the thickest part.

Briefly reheat sauce just to warm on medium-low heat. Spoon sauce over the salmon and sprinkle with finely chopped pistachio nuts. (Serve with roasted asparagus and steamed rice.)




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