Fruit (Well, Vegetable) of the Season

It is still not spring.

I am still not happy about it, but I’m solaced by one thing: rhubarb.  I adore rhubarb, and could eat it every day.  My mother disagrees with me, though, and so I didn’t realize my adoration until I was grown up and living on my own.  I’d never eaten it, never (since I was a typically unaware teenager) seen it in the stores, and had formed a strange idea that it was one of those things that people only ate in old books.  I recently learned that my friend Chris’s family had a big rhubarb plant in his backyard that I must have looked right through hundreds of times (have I mentioned that I was unaware?).

I was introduced to rhubarb by Nigella Lawson, whose first cookbook How to Eat was a birthday present several years ago.  In the book she rhapsodizes about rhubarb and features it in more than one exciting-sounding recipe.  Upon reading her adulatory prose, I immediately went to my favored grocery store and bought a pound.  I was a little taken aback to discover that it looked and acted like ruby-red celery (an item which, at the time, I still loathed), but I persevered.

I chopped up the rhubarb, sweetened it, put it in a pan in the oven (Lawson’s preferred cooking method for rhubarb), and promptly forgot about it. I don’t recall what was occupying my mind (though I would hazard a guess that it was one of my myriad pointless grad school assignments), but I left the rhubarb in the oven for considerably longer than the recipe called for. When, in a sudden panic, I remembered its existence, I yanked the pan out of the oven to discover not the described discrete pieces of rhubarb swimming in pink syrup, but an amalgamated sludge of rhubarb and cooked down juices. I’ve heard that childhood exposure to just such a sludge has prejudiced many a rational being against rhubarb forever after, but to me, the rosy expanse at the bottom of the pan looked appealing. I spooned up a bite, blew on it, and with admitted trepidation, put the spoon in my mouth.

I loved it.

The consistency was that of pudding, but with the slight textural contrast that occurred when a still-discrete piece of rhubarb would melt away at the slightest pressure. And it was tart. I love tart things like citrus fruits and yogurt, and this beat them all. I had planned to eat the cooked rhubarb over yogurt for several breakfasts, but I ended up eating it all by the end of the day; I kept going back to the fridge for more spoonfuls until, dumbfounded, I hefted a surprisingly light container and discovered only a scant scraping left across the bottom.

Since that day I’ve been a fiend for rhubarb. I’ve made into custard, ice cream, pie, preserves, sweet pickles, stirred it into muffins and cakes, even made a drink syrup out of the cooking juices. My favorite way of eating it, though, is still as a spoonable, pudding-y compote.

On Saturday I cooked rhubarb on the stovetop, letting the sliced pieces melt into each other until my favored texture was reached. Sometimes I add a handful of raspberries, or sprinkle on some ginger or cinnamon, to change up the flavors, but none of my usual ideas appealed. This time I added a little rosewater to the finished product. The rhubarb flavor was still dominant, but the rosewater added a floral background that contrasted with the innate tartness and made the rhubarb taste more fruit-like, more like a berry. It was a very successful variation on my usual sludge. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have this spoon in my hand, and. . . .

Published in: on March 4, 2007 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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