Every once in a while, in what amounts to the culinary equivalent of reverse chic, an ingredient so unglamorous, something once used only by peasants or in acts of desperation, pops up on the menus of the most well-regarded chefs. Like with those faded worn-thin T-shirts bearing random slogans, the phenomenon seems to be guided by a principle of the weirder, the better. Enter, or reenter, rhubarb. Historically in this country, rhubarb has been used almost exclusively with strawberries to make pies, so that it is also known as "pie plant." But rhubarb isn't just for pies anymore.
With thick, celery-like stalks and giant, floppy leaves so loaded with oxalic acid as to be mildly toxic, rhubarb is clearly a vegetable--and in countries such as Iran and Poland it is often cooked like one. Back in the B.C. years in its native Asia, rhubarb was used primarily for medicinal purposes. It wasn't until the early 1800s that people began eating the thick, sour stem of the plant cooked down with sugar and ginger into a compote, which was then spooned over ice cream.
Here in the New World, it has been cooked as a dessert so often that in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court changed the plant's designation from vegetable to fruit. Even Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters included rhubarb in her book on fruits.
I first discovered rhubarb at farmers markets on the East Coast where, along with lilacs and cherry-blossom branches, it is a welcome sign of springtime after a long winter of root vegetables and apples. Nowadays, rhubarb is available almost year-round. Pinkish-colored hothouse rhubarb can be found from December through summer. Rhubarb grown in fields, the old-fashioned way, has bright cherry-red stalks, supposedly superior flavor and is available for a short time in the early spring. I buy huge bags of rhubarb and chop it up, and what I don't put into a pie or crisp that day, I freeze for later use.
Until recently, the most unusual thing I ever did with rhubarb was to cook it without its normal accompaniment of strawberries. Chefs around town have been more inventive. Because of its tartness, Roxana Jullapat, pastry chef at Lucques and AOC, likes to make something creamy with rhubarb, such as a parfait. At Campanile, Dahlia Solomon has experimented with a brown butter rhubarb tart topped with rhubarb ice cream. And at L'Orangerie, a rhubarb and raspberry napoleon is a seasonal favorite. I spoke with at least half a dozen chefs, determined to find one who was using rhubarb as its vegetable self. Each claimed that the only time they put rhubarb on their savory menu was with foie gras--the one menu item that's nearly always paired with, yes, fruit.
Adapted from the "Foster's Market Cookbook," by Sara Foster (Random House)
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar (for a tart crisp, up to 2 cups, depending on how sweet you like it)
Juice of one orange
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Smear an 11-by-7-by-3-inch baking dish with butter. To make topping, stir 1 cup all-purpose flour with the brown sugar, oats, almonds, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a large bowl. Add butter cubes to the dry ingredients using a pastry blender or two knives, until mixture is coarse and crumbly.
To make filling, put rhubarb, sugar and orange juice into a large bowl and stir to mix. Pour rhubarb mixture into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle topping evenly over filling. Place baking dish on a baking sheet to catch any juices that bubble over, and place baking sheet and dish in the oven. Bake the crisp for 40-55 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling around the edges and the top is crisp and golden brown. Cool slightly before serving. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.