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Comfort Food: A fool for strawberry-rhubarb

Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool. (Nancy Baggett)

I have a theory that how vividly you remember your first taste of something depends on how surprising (good or bad) the experience was. My first taste of strawberries and rhubarb served in combination certainly supports this idea.

I was about 5 years old when I first encountered the duo during a spring supper at a cousin’s comfortable old farmhouse. I’d eaten lots of strawberries before, and, occasionally, stewed rhubarb. But never in my short, sheltered life had I ever come upon anything so exotic as the two combined in a dessert called a compote.

Like most young children, I was wary of all dietary novelty. (I’d had to work up to trying a baked potato that was orange instead of white for several years.) But in my family manners mattered, and I was well-schooled in the rule that you not only ate but pretended to like whatever the hostess served. If word got back to my mother that I’d even flinched at the table, I knew some favorite privilege would be instantly revoked.

With dread I sucked in my breath, dug into the bowl, and took my first taste. It was …. good, really good. Astonishingly good considering my rock-bottom expectations. In fact, I didn’t even have to fake a smile!

The berries were as sweet and fragrant and comfortingly familiar as ever, but somehow bolder, better, and definitely less seedy. The vegetal quality and muted color that had put me off with plain stewed rhubarb was completely absent; the berries lent a flavor and complexity that actually made the stalks taste like fruit. Even my unsophisticated palate could appreciate that this was a miraculous match.

I’ve since enjoyed the strawberry-rhubarb pairing in many different guises—pies, rustic cobblers, glorious freezer jams, betties, crisps, and old-fashioned trifles and fools. I’m always struck, almost as if for the first time, by how spectacular the pairing is. It’s a case where one plus one equals so much more than two.

Perhaps because my introductory dish was a simple one, I’m especially fond of strawberry-rhubarb fools. These are really nothing more than stewed rhubarb and fresh pureed strawberries folded together with sweetened whipped cream or light custard, or both. The contrasting pretty red and white swirls, plus the creamy airiness playing off the refreshing sweet-tart fruit, make these desserts lovely, lusciously refreshing and a natural for spring. Plus, their elegant-but-easy character fits my lifestyle.

Recipe Included

What’s up with quirky name “fool?” Nobody seems to know. Some scholars think it comes from the French verb fouler, to press or crush, but this seems a stretch considering that crushing or pressing aren’t integral to preparing a fool. The Oxford English Dictionary simply links this treat with another old-fashioned English cream-and-fruit dessert, the trifle, and calls them “a bit of foolishness.” I’d say a delectable bit of foolishness.

-- Nancy Baggett

Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool
4 to 6 servings

If at all possible, serve your fool in clear glass dishes or goblets to show off their appeal. And do taste the berry-rhubarb blend during preparations: It’s the only way to tell exactly how much sugar to add.

Buying tip: Rhubarb stalks are usually sold without their huge, ruffled, red-veined leaves. But if you find some with the leaves intact be sure to trim and discard them. (They are high in oxalic acid and not edible by humans, though the acid apparently doesn’t bother the deer that ravage my garden.) Some rhubarb varieties are just naturally brighter-colored than others. A greenish tinge doesn’t mean the stalks are unripe or any less sweet than reddish ones.

MAKE AHEAD: The rhubarb can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated for up to 3 days. The assembled fools can be refrigerated for 1 or 2 hours.

From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.

About 1 pound rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (3 cups)
2/3 cup sugar, plus more as needed
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces (1 small container) regular or low-fat vanilla yogurt
2 1/4 cups strawberries (hulled), plus 4 to 6 whole berries for garnish

Have 4 to 6 glass desssert bowls or brandy snifters or glass goblets at hand.

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and water in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Let stand, stirring once or twice, until the sugar begins to dissolve. Place over medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the rhubarb is tender and has a saucy consistency. Let cool completely before combining with the berries (or refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days).

Up to 2 hours before serving time, puree the 2 1/4 cups berries in a food processor (or finely chop by hand; no need to strain) into the cooled rhubarb. Taste and add a little sugar, if desired.

Beat the cream in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer on low, then high speed until stiff peaks form. Use a spatula to gently fold in the yogurt and a generous half of the rhubarb-strawberry mixture until uniform pale-pink color. Divide one-third of the cream mixture among the glass dishes or snifters or glasses. Then divide a scant half of the remaining rhubarb-strawberry mixture among the dishes. Next, alternate layers using a third of the cream mixture, the remaining sauce, then the remaining cream.

Garnish each portion with the reserved strawberries (cut them into slices, if large). Serve immediately, or cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 or 2 hours.

Per serving (based on 6, using low-fat yogurt): 210 calories, 3 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 30 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  April 8, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Comfort Food , Recipes  | Tags: Comfort Food, Nancy Baggett, recipes, rhubarb  
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