If I were to place a personal ad, I would mention that I can bake a rhubarb pie. To hell with sunsets. A guy who knows the worth of a good rhubarb pie is probably one who can go the distance. That's because rhubarb, in any form, is without equal. For one, it's red, and red food, if you've noticed, is always special.
Being the first produce to show in local gardens, rhubarb means spring. What could be nicer than a wake-up blast of sweet-and-sour after a long winter? But a walk in my alley says people don't bother much with rhubarb. Those blowzy leaves with the great gams just stand there until they wilt in the heat. Maybe it's the labour required to make the fruit edible. Of course, you can eat it raw--I did when I was a kid--but the appeal was really the mug of dipping sugar. When that was gone I abandoned the remaining stringy bits.
The tricky part about cooking rhubarb is deciding how much sugar to add. Older cookbooks have great recipes, but they tend to go heavy on the sugar. Cut back some. Better to be too tart; you can always add vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream afterward. Knowing the variety of rhubarb can give some indication. Thankfully, the local farmers markets are starting up and rhubarb will be on the tables. John Switzer of Glen Valley Organic Farms in the Fraser Valley grows the strawberry variety, since red is what sells. He should know. He picks over 200 kilos a week, all organic, for restaurants and the public. There are green varieties available, but blush is what rhubarb is about. And with oysters to sustain the blush, you have a perfect pair.
GRILLED OYSTERS WITH RHUBARB-
2 rhubarb stalks, thinly sliced
1 shallot, minced
1-centimetre length of fresh ginger, grated
2 tablespoons mirin or sherry
1 tablespoon white wine
12 oysters, freshly shucked
In a stainless-steel pot (rhubarb turns a nasty colour in aluminum and cast iron), add the rhubarb, shallot, ginger, mirin or sherry, and wine, and cook on medium heat until the rhubarb cooks down and the sauce is thick. Gently roll the oysters in olive oil until coated and toss over a hot grill (a grilling basket is the perfect tool) for five or six minutes, more for firmer oysters. Arrange them all pretty on plates with a dollop of the rhubarb compote and a sprig of something green or some coarsely ground green pepper.
Like so many good foods, rhubarb came to us from China, where the root was used for medicinal purposes (not the leaves, however, which contain oxalic acid, a bad thing for your kidneys). Somehow the Europeans figured out the red part was good eating, and by the mid 1700s a few good puddings and tarts were in evidence. Had anyone known about vitamin C and rhubarb's high content, they could have used it to keep scurvy at bay. Since it is a durable northern plant--a vegetable, in fact--it made the passage to North America and thrived.
Good for breakfast, a rhubarb crisp, with some added wheat germ to the topping, is a great way to meet a blustery spring day. Throw in some berries or apples; rhubarb goes with most fruit. Allan Christian, the pie man at Aphrodite's Organic Delights (3578 West 4th Avenue), says his best-selling pie is rhubarb-raspberry; after that, rhubarb-strawberry. For purists who love only the flavour of rhubarb, he'll make up a pie for you. He freezes great quantities of rhubarb during the growing season to ensure top quality year round. Christian, it turns out, lives on the aforementioned Glen Valley Organic Farm. At this time of year, he's bringing in fresh armloads of rhubarb daily. You can't do better than this for farm fresh.
But no contest, the queen of rhubarb desserts is Flash o' Lightning Pudding; at least, that's what they call it in county Wicklow, the part of Ireland my friend's mother Sheila Connolly comes from. Connolly, a homemaker of the old school, made Flash o' Lightning for her seven kids and Mr. Connolly. The pudding is put together by cooking dollops of sweet batter in a simmering pot of rhubarb sauce. The dumplings are then served with the sauce and ice cream. Google "rhubarb dumplings" and you'll have a choice of recipes. If you master one, you can mention it in your personal ad and maybe get 50 good years together like the Connollys.