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Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb

March 25, 1993|JOAN DRAKE

It's no accident that rhubarb is also called pie plant. Check just about any basic American cookbook and you'll find a recipe that partners it with strawberries under a pastry lattice.

Although rhubarb is the stalk of a plant, and therefore something we'd usually call a vegetable, for kitchen purposes it's always sweetened and treated as a fruit. In addition to pies, the stalks are used in crisps, puddings, sauces and preserves; the juice goes into beverages and wine.

Field or garden rhubarb is harvested in spring and summer. Its cherry-to-deep-red stalks have a very tart taste. Hothouse rhubarb, available most of the year, is pink and generally milder in flavor.

Most of the time the leaves have already been removed from rhubarb sold in supermarket produce sections. If they are still attached, however (as of course they will be if the rhubarb comes from your garden), the leaves should always be discarded. They contain a poison, oxalic acid, and can be fatal if eaten.

Stalks of quality rhubarb are medium-thick, crisp and unblemished. One pound yields three cups of sliced vegetable.

Rhubarb may be stored, wrapped tightly, in the refrigerator for two to three days. Prepare by washing thoroughly with cold water and trimming the discolored ends.

Field rhubarb may be stringy and may need the fibers pulled off (Step 1) or shaved away with a vegetable peeler. The hothouse variety usually doesn't need peeling.

For basic cooking, cut the stalks into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces (Step 2). Sweeten each pound of field rhubarb with 1/2 cup of sugar before cooking (Step 3).

Add a little water, cover and cook over medium-low heat three to five minutes, until the rhubarb is tender but the pieces still hold together (Step 4). Continue to cook if stewed rhubarb (Step 5) is desired. Serve either type of sauce hot or chilled for breakfast, or as a dessert with whipped cream.

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