Dr. Lostpast complains that I never make the same thing twice. He says the minute that I make something that he loves, he knows he will never see it again. As a mostly meat and potatoes guy, he balks at my exuberant investigations into odd organ meats (“sheep balls, are you joking?”) and exotic ingredients (ok, I did grow black furry mold on rotting barley for 3 weeks for an ancient sauce… but Murri’s really good!).
Fact is, there are many things I make that I have made the same way for decades from my disreputable looking (but much loved) black book of recipes (and an even earlier green book that was started in college). They are both full of my fool-proof favorites. I really do make some things over and over!
When I have rhubarb, I go to the book and use the recipe for rhubarb pie. It is nearly instinctual. It is always delicious, but I haven’t changed it for… well… decades!
It’s time to mix it up a little and try something new (I can hear a virtual groan coming from the Doctor’s study although he doesn’t even like rhubarb pie, “Enough with the new, already!). I decided to begin at the beginning and learn about rhubarb–– about which, I discovered, I knew nothing.
I’d really never thought about it, just ate it! I had a rhubarb patch in my backyard as a kid and had ‘rhubarb sauce’ a lot growing up. When I got my own house, it came with a very substantial, well-established patch and I started making pies and cobblers with my diminutive forest of ruby stalks. A friend even made a remarkable dish of fried rhubarb dumplings with strawberry sauce. I never gave the plant itself much thought and believed (in a vague, fuzzy sort of way) it was another gift from our Western European forebears, like apples and cherries (that are actually Persian and came to England with the Romans!) and it was, in a way. Benjamin Franklin brought the first rhubarb over from England (a Banbury apothecary named Hayward obtained Russian seeds in 1762) and it took off in 19th century America, but, it is not originally from Western Europe, the site Homecooking tells me, it was indigenous to China and Russia!
Its binomial name is rheum rhabarbarum (genus rheum in the family of polygonaceae. it is related to tomatillos and amaranth––you can see the relationship to amaranth in the seed stalk on the rhubarb plant). Rheum comes from the Greek rheuma, meaning "a flowing". Rhabarbarum comes from the Greek word Rha (or the Sythian word Rhā) for the Volga River (the longest river in Europe) and barbarum (from the Greek barbaron) is "foreign", (a comment, perhaps, on the non-Roman and thus uncivilized inhabitants of the region—although the pejorative nature of the word may be more modern…). Rhubarb grew wild along the banks of that river. Although it had already been imported to Europe in a dried form for centuries, rhubarb wasn’t introduced to Europe as a growing plant until 1608 when the Italian botanist, Prosper Alpinus began to grow rhubarb in Italy to undercut the price of the expensive imported Chinese root. It was used as a root first, you see. The stalks were not eaten… rather the root was used medicinally as an excellent purgative by the Chinese (as far back as 2700 years ago) and later much prized in Europe for its effectiveness in curing GI issues.
It was not until sugar became truly available and affordable that the rhubarb stalk was used as food. I discovered on the Kitchen Project site (via the Oxford Companion for Food) that the first published recipe was Maria Eliza Rundell’s in 1807. It was used in the Middle East much earlier thanks to the Silk Road trade coming from the magical kingdom of Samarkand (isn’t that the most romantically exotic sounding place?) as my friend Laura Kelly at The Silk Road Gourmet pointed out when she used it in a spectacular lamb dish. Her post actually started me down the rhubarb road when she said it was from the East –– not old Europe as I had always believed.
To honor rhubarb, the plant that kept England from a scurvy epidemic during WWII (and made a generation of Britons hate the stuff mightily), a plant that is full of Calcium, Vitamin C, K and Potassium and just darn good for you, I give you two recipes. One is an Alsatian rhubarb tart from Jean-George Vongerichten via Food and Wine ––and the other is my own recipe with some new additions of rose and ginger.
The ginger addition began with a recipe for ginger rhubarb cobbler I saw a few weeks back, and then Sarah from All Our Fingers in the Pie had a rhubarb ginger chutney that looked wonderful. Next I saw a rhubarb trifle with ginger beer jelly… it was like ginger and rhubarb were in the air! And why the rose? Simple, rose and ginger are wonderful together (Aftelier makes a delicious tea with them). Both recipes are a great way to use the gregariously growing plant.
2 c strawberries (raspberries or cherries are also great… just add a little more sugar)
4 c ½ “ size pieces of rhubarb
short ¾ c sugar for a tart pie, 1 cup for a sweeter version
1/3 c flour
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 T butter
¼ t nutmeg
¼ t allspice
1 T cassis or framboise
2 drops Aftelier rose essence or 2 t rosewater
2 drops Aftelier ginger essence or 1 t grated ginger
1 – 2 T Demerara sugar for sprinkling
1 cup AP flour
¼ c whole-wheat flour
½ t salt
1 T sugar
2 T chopped pecans (or walnuts or almonds)
1 stick frozen butter in small chunks
2 T frozen lard in small chunks (optional)
¼ to 1/3 c ice water
Combine the flour, salt, sugar and pecans in the processor and blend. Add the butter and lard and give it a whirl or 2 till lightly blended with lots of butter bits visable. Remove the blade and toss in the water all around the dough. Blend gently with a fork (I think using the processor for this breaks it up too much).
Remove the dough in small handfuls you sort of squeeze together and place the handfuls on a floured surface. Smear each handful flat (a gentle frissage) and place one on top of the other like pancakes with a bit of flour on the bottom of each (it’s what makes the crust flaky). You are not kneading the dough! Round the pile a bit. Wrap in parchment or plastic and refrigerate for an hour.
Roll out the crust and place in a 9” pie pan, crimping the edges decoratively. Put the filling on the dough and dot with butter.
Place on a foil covered cookie sheet.
Bake at 375º for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Press down on the top pieces of fruit and let the dry bits sink into the liquid. Sprinkle with the demerara sugar just before serving so it sparkles.
Alsatian Rhubarb Tart from Food & Wine
. 2 cups all-purpose flour
. 1 teaspoon sugar
. Pinch of salt
. 1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
. 1 large egg
. 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon ice water
. 2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/3-inch dice
. 1 1/3 cups sugar
. 1 cup heavy cream
. 2 large egg yolks
. 3 large egg whites
. Pinch of salt
In a food processor, combine the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse just until it is the size of peas. In a small bowl, whisk the egg with the ice water. Drizzle the egg mixture over the dough and pulse just until evenly moistened; do not let it form a ball. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and shape into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.
In a medium bowl, toss the rhubarb with 1/2 cup of the sugar; transfer to a strainer. Set it over the bowl and refrigerate overnight to drain.
Preheat the oven to 375°. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to a 14-inch round. Fit the pastry into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and trim the overhanging pastry.
Line the pastry with foil and fill with pie weights, dried beans or rice. Bake the tart shell in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry is set. Carefully remove the foil and weights and bake the shell for about 10 minutes, or until cooked and the bottom is lightly golden.
Press on the rhubarb to extract as much liquid as possible. In a bowl, toss the rhubarb with 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Spread the rhubarb in the shell and bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes, or until the rhubarb is just tender.
In a medium bowl, whisk the cream with the egg yolks and 3 tablespoons of the sugar. Pour the custard over the rhubarb and bake in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until set.
Increase the oven temperature to 425° and position a rack in the upper third of the oven. In a large bowl, using a handheld electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt until firm peaks form. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, beating until the whites are stiff and glossy.
Spread the meringue over the tart all the way to the side. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 5 minutes, or just until the meringue is lightly browned. Let the tart cool, then remove the ring, slide the tart onto a cake plate and serve.
This is my 101st post which is a landmark of sorts. Thanks to you all for your support!
Also, sorry if blogger is causing trouble. Some can't leave comments at all, others must click twice to do it. I heard they are working on it so hopefully they will get it ironed out soon.