Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Mama's Little Baby Loves Rhubarb, Rhubarb

Because my pantry is, technically, outside of my apartment, I often find myself working in my kitchen with the door to the back stairwell open. This is not as vulnerable as you might think; I live in a duplex that is owned by my upstairs neighbors and dear friends Stephen and Scooter. The other night Scooter, on his way to the basement, poked his head in and proclaimed "Eat more rhubarb!".

Was this a new life philosophy? The latest nutritional advice? A random greeting?

No, it seems that in the little patch of garden out back the bit of rhubarb is going gangbusters this year, growing more stalks and bigger leaves than the plants can support. Stephen has a speciality rhubarb pie he likes to make, but Stephen hasn't had a free moment all spring so the rhubarb is collapsing in on itself. Please eat the rhubarb, said Scooter.

I've not previously eaten much in the way of rhubarb, except for some strawberry-rhubarb pie on occasion, and I've certainly never cooked it. I checked out some cookbooks where I learned that rhubarb, though a vegetable, is generally used as if it were a fruit. I went out back and got one single stalk, which I cut up and stewed for a few minutes with a little lemon and sugar and water. This was surprisingly yummy.

My friend Jim invited me to dinner on Sunday, so I decided to experiment, using a recipe for "rhubarb brown betty" that I found in the Marion Cunningham revision of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I would not normally make something for the first time to serve to other people, unless the food experiment was the point of the meal, but trying things out for Jim (and in this case Denise as well) would certainly be fine.

[As a side point: I actually know a lot of people who have emphatically assured me that they would be more than delighted to come over for a food experiment. In other words, I dance on a Morris team.]

On Sunday afternoon I gathered up a quantity of rhubarb, enough to yield about two pounds without leaves. I cut this into small pieces, washed it thoroughly, and cooked it with a lot of sugar, a whole lemon's worth of lemon zest (I saw a documentary on Alice Waters recently in which it was clear that lots of lemon in fruit desserts is a big thing with her), some grated orange peel (that I happened to have in a spice jar), and a little bit of water. The lemon and orange were not in the original recipe.

The recipe's instructions were to cook this for about five minutes, but after five minutes this seemed far too liquid to use as the betty base. I tried to cook it down. This, of course, simply stewed the rhubarb to a further mush, but it also seemed to meld the flavors together.

And thus I had a saucepan full of delicious rhubarb sauce.

But I went ahead. I poured this into a baking dish and covered it with bread crumbs mixed with a lot of melted butter. I say with a sort of moral rectitude that this time I used bread crumbs made from my own homemade (well, bread-machine) bread. The bread crumbs, to my surprise, did not sink into the syrupy mass but stayed evenly on top.

I picked up some good vanilla ice cream on the way to Jim's, thinking that if nothing else we'd have ice cream and rhubarb sauce.We baked the betty while we ate dinner and brought it out for dessert.

Oh my gosh, this was absolutely delicious! Denise and I mixed our betty with ice cream, Jim ate his plain, and we all had huge servings and then seconds. When I tasted it after the stewing it had seemed a bit too sweet, but in the process of baking the lemon peel worked its way throughout the dish, counteracting the sweetness gloriously, in one complex mouthful.

I knew in theory that eating something at 8pm that was still growing in the ground at 4pm yields an intensity of flavor that is unsurpassed. But I wasn't expecting something this tasty, not from rhubarb.

I'm making this again tonight.I've already stewed the rhubarb and pounded out the bread crumbs and invited some folks over. And if I'm feeling really ambitious at some point I may try a fussy fancy recipe I found that requires you to stew the rhubarb with strawberries and raspberries until it becomes a thick paste and to spread this between individually oiled layers of filo dough before baking for about 90 minutes. Yum.
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