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Dining with Dara: Get rhubarb out of the pie

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Rhubarb
Rhubarb, a perennial, is one of the easiest plants to grow in a northern garden, and it's one of the earliest local vegetables.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Rhubarb plants are popping up all over Minnesota right now, to the joy of many and the consternation of a vocal minority. 

 Tom Crann:  Our regular food and dining correspondent, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, is here to talk to us about the agony, and the ecstasy, of the sourest vegetable in the garden.

I have to admit, when it comes to rhubarb, I have my doubts. 

 Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl:   You're not alone. I threw out an open call for rhubarb-detractors on my Facebook page, and the complaints came roaring in: it's too sour, it's made too sweet, my grandma made me eat it, and of course there's that Midwestern aw-shucks corniness.

Completely unscientific, but I'd guess the general feeling about rhubarb in Minnesota is about 90 percent favorable, and a very vocal 10 percent unfavorable, which is fine. I've always been jealous of the South, and the way they have this distinct cuisine which people can react to — you hate okra, you love it; you hate chitterlings, you love them; you hate shrimp and grits —  well, actually, no one hates shrimp and grits.  We have something to forge a food identity around: rhubarb, the okra of the north.

 Tom Crann:   But you're not here merely to shed a light on this great local rhubarb schism.

 DMG:   No. I am really here to bring you news of local cookbook authors who are trying to bring rhubarb out of its role in desserts, and into the rest of the meal. 

 Tom Crann:   Why would they do such a thing?

 DMG:  Because it grows so well here!  Rhubarb is one of the easiest of all plants to grow in a northern garden. It's perennial, meaning it comes back year after year, it's one of the earliest local vegetables. I've seen it in co-ops and farmers markets already this year. Why should you spend all that money and use all that transportation to get lemons to Minnesota, when rhubarb's already here.

 Tom Crann:   I can think of a few reasons you'd want lemons. 

 DMG:   I am going to change your mind. The first book I want to talk about is Rhubarb Renaissance, by Star Tribune reporter Kim Ode.  It's a great book. It's a really great book for anyone who wants to explore the culinary possibilities of rhubarb: 120 pages of nothing but rhubarb recipes.  Rhubarb Asian lettuce wraps, rhubarb lamb stew, rhubarb ravioli.

 Tom Crann:   Rhubarb ravioli? 

 DMG:    It's true.  What I really like about Ode's book is that once you get past the counterintuitive feeling of "You can't do that with rhubarb," you realize that the recipes are very simple, do-able extensions of how people really cook, just taking better advantage of a local vegetable.

 Tom Crann:    Now is rhubarb a vegetable, or a fruit?

 DMG:    Another controversy!  Botanically speaking, fruits are ripened things that contain seeds. That's why tomatoes are a fruit. But so are cucumbers, and squash, and every kind of hot or bell pepper.  Rhubarb is a vegetable. We eat the stalk of the plant and that's one reason it's in another book I'm really loving, called, appropriately, "Eat More Vegetables: Making the Most of Summer Produce." It came about because the author, local food writer Tricia Cornell, joined a CSA.

 Tom Crann:    A CSA, that's community supported agriculture.  You pay a farmer a certain amount of money and you get a box of vegetables every week.

 DMG:    Exactly. I did it one year, and it's wonderful, but it can be overwhelming —  what exactly do you do with kohlrabi?  (You just peel it, cut it up, and eat it raw, like carrot sticks.)

This book helps you surf the waves of incoming produce, such as rhubarb.  The book has a rhubarb Russian cheesecake, but also a Persian chicken stew with rhubarb called Rhubarb fesenjan, a chicken stew with walnuts. Rhubarb is actually popular in Persia, Turkey, Tibet, and Pakistan, as well as in England, Norway, and, of course Minnesota.  And it's going to be popular with you, Tom Crann!

I brought a recipe straight out of Kim Ode's Rhubarb Renaissance cookbook —  for a rhubarb cocktail.  I made a rhubarb syrup by simply cooking fresh rhubarb with sugar, and then straining out the solids.  To this rhubarb syrup I have added some Spanish cava, that is, sparkling wine.  You could call it a rhubarb Bellini. You could also put the syrup with bubbly water, or make a sort of lemonade, a "rhubarb-ade," with it. What do you think? 

 Tom Crann:    Not too bad... 

 DMG:   It almost makes you want to put in a rhubarb patch, doesn't it?

 Tom Crann:   Well, if I do, I'll know what cookbooks to turn to, to help me enjoy the bounty.  Thanks, Dara.

Discussed in this story:

• Rhubarb Renaissance, by Kim Ode; Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012, $16.95.

• Eat More Vegetables: Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce,, by Tricia Cornell, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012, $27.95.

Rhubarb Fesenjan

SERVES 4

Fesenjan is a Persian dish traditionally made with pomegranates. Our northern rhubarb has a similar sweet tang that works beautifully as well. This is my adaptation of Joan Nathan's fesenjan in her Jewish Holiday Cookbook. She uses a whole cut-up chicken, but I prefer my chicken stews without the bones and skin. We serve this with Persian rice, which is parboiled and then steamed and forms a golden, crunchy crust on the bottom.

2 cups finely chopped rhubarb
3 cups water, divided
1 cup ground walnuts
2 tablespoons oil
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1½ pounds) 
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup) 
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ teaspoon salt
¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place rhubarb and two cups of the water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook 10 minutes, until very soft.

In a dry pan, toast walnuts over medium-high heat until fragrant, about two minutes. Stir often to prevent burning.

Pour oil into wide saute pan with a lid and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Carefully place chicken thighs in oil and cook until golden brown, about two minutes on each side. (Don't bother to "unroll" the chicken pieces; just leave them as is.) Remove chicken to a plate and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and add onions. Cook until golden, stirring often to prevent browning. Add toasted walnuts, rhubarb and its cooking water, tomato paste, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, about one minute. Add remaining cup water and scrape bottom of pan. Place chicken thighs in pan and spoon a little sauce over them (they won't be completely covered). Cover pan and cook at a low simmer 25 minutes.

Remove chicken to serving plate and cover. Simmer sauce uncovered about 10 minutes more to thicken. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.

Rhubarb Syrup, Curd, and Syllabub

I know people who will take a rhubarb stalk, trim it a little, dip it in a bowl of sugar, and chomp. But for most of us, the flavor of raw rhubarb is a bit too intense. It mellows a bit when cooked and, of course, benefits from a little sugar and fat to cut the sourness.

This is a three-part recipe. The syrup is great over ice cream or pancakes or as the base for a soda (mix one part syrup with three parts sparkling water) or cocktail. It's also the first step in making the rhubarb curd, which is lovely spread on crepes or between cake layers, or as a dip for fruit. The curd, in turn, is the base for the delicate syllabub. Easier than a mousse, a syllabub is a flavored whipped cream often served over crumbled cookies.

Rhubarb Syrup
2 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups sugar
½ cup honey
3—4 sprigs thyme

Place all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Simmer, covered, 15 minutes, until the rhubarb falls apart. Let cool completely, then remove the thyme sprigs. Puree mixture in a standing blender or with a stick blender. Makes 2½  cups. Variation: Strain out the greenish pulp for a ruby red and more refined syrup.

Rhubarb Curd
1 batch Rhubarb Syrup, strained to remove green pulp
6 egg yolks
½  teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Bring syrup to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and cook, uncovered, until reduced to one cup. Let cool in the saucepan to room temperature. Add remaining ingredients and whisk very well. 

Cook mixture very slowly over very low heat. Use a double boiler, a glass bowl placed over a pot of simmering water, or the lowest possible setting on your stove top. Stir constantly, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan. Do not let your curd boil. Remove from heat immediately if you see bubbles. Watch for foam to form on the top of the mixture and for steam to begin to rise. At this point it will have thickened slightly and a candy or probe thermometer will read 160 degrees.

Pour mixture through a mesh strainer, scraping to push it through. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours to allow curd to set. The flavor will deepen overnight.

Rhubarb Syllabub
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 cup chilled Rhubarb Curd (above) 
crumbled shortbread cookies

Combine cream and sugar and whip mixture to stiff peaks. Gently fold in rhubarb curd. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve with crumbled shortbread cookies.