Fooling With Rhubarb

If you ever want to try eating vegetables for breakfast, you can do it with rhubarb. I just did -- and it's making me swoon.

Actually, I hadn't planned on eating rhubarb for breakfast; I was layering the rhube with strawberries and whipped cream for a photo of a "fool," a sublime parfait type of dessert that you must try at least once in your lifetime.

A fool's paradise: Rhubarb, strawberries and whipped cream. (Kim O'Donnel)

As I spooned my way through the pillowy cream to get to the satiny mauve puree, it occurred to me that yogurt would be lovely in place of the cream, particularly at 8 o'clock in the morning. And then -- oh yes! -- maybe I had a seasonal topper for the dreaded morning cholesterol-lowering oatmeal I'm supposed to be eating.

It was last year at this time that I feasted on rhubarb, and already I'm beginning to miss it. Catch it while you can -- it will be here maybe until early June -- and then poof! you must sup on memories. However, if you live in the Pacific Northwest or will be traveling that way this summer, you'll get plenty of rhubey opportunities. This relative of buckwheat likes chilly climes.

For rhubarb lovers closer to the south, you can stock up on stalks and freeze them for later use, when berries and cherries and plums come to town, for crisps, pies, chilled soups and fools, of course. The flavor mix-matching possibilities seem endless (Hey, what about asparagus and rhubarb?), but please, whatever you decide, DON'T EAT THE LEAVES. They're poisonous.

Now, back to that fool, pictured above. The name comes from the French word "fouler," which means "to mash." And that is what a fool is -- mashed up fruit, sitting pretty in a parfait glass. You want to pick acidic subjects -- they love the fat of the cream -- so passion fruit, kiwi and raspberries would all make respectable fools.

Stewing rhubarb is a lot easier than it sounds, by the way; you chop it up, throw it into a saucepan, and add a wee bit of water and some sugar. Cook over low heat, covered (to create moisture) and then uncovered, to let liquid reduce. That's it.

The recipe below, which I've consulted on several occasions, calls for the addition of rose syrup, which is a sweetened syrup made from rose petal extract found in Middle East groceries. It's lusciously heady and aromatic, but unnecessary if there is none to be found. I have use rose water as well with great results.

Jeff Cox, in his "The Organic Cook's Bible," suggests stewing rhubarb with honey and grated ginger, a combination that is begging to be paired with a scone or perhaps even a piece of halibut (or maybe even some scallops).

And please, if you've got one up your sleeve, share your favorite way to eat rhubarb in the comments area below!

Rhubarb-Strawberry fool
Adapted from June 2005 issue of Food & Wine magazine

1 1/4 pounds (3-4 medium stalks) rhubarb, trimmed of leaves, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup (or 1 ounce) water
1/8 cup rose syrup (optional; see note)
1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 pound strawberries, thinly sliced (about 1 1/4 cups)

In a large saucepan, combine the rhubarb, sugar and water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb breaks down, about 10 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring often, until the liquid has evaporated and the rhubarb is thick and jammy, about 10 minutes longer.
Put rhubarb in a bowl. Refrigerate until chilled.
Stir the rose syrup (if using) and lemon juice into the cooled rhubarb.
In a medium bowl, beat the heavy cream with confectioner's sugar until soft peaks form.
Spoon half of the rhubarb into 5 wine or parfait glasses and top with half of the sliced strawberries and half of the whipped cream. Repeat with the remaining rhubarb, strawberries and cream.

Serve immediately. Recipe may be doubled. The stewed rhubarb can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight.

Note: Rose syrup is a sweetened aromatic syrup found in Middle Eastern groceries. A splash of unsweetened rose water is also nice for dessert aromatherapy.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 9, 2007; 10:16 AM ET Desserts , Spring Produce
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I've been tempted by rhubarb before but had no clue how to prepare it. I'll give this a try! Thanks.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | April 9, 2007 10:50 AM

I just picked up some rose water for the first time ever and will try this. Any other ideas on how to use?

Posted by: Rita | April 9, 2007 2:50 PM

Thanks Kim--

I've got rhubarb growing in the garden of my new home in CO and had no idea what to really do with it. When it's ready to harvest, I now have some ideas.

I do remember my mother using it as a topping when she was baking a basic yellow sheet cake. She would chop it fairly fine, combine with sugar (could've been brown sugar) and cinnamon and sprinkle it on top of her cake batter. It would bake with the cake and was pretty yummy.

Posted by: Rocky Mountain High | April 9, 2007 3:02 PM

Rita, Rose water is divine mixed in with lemonade...I might also try it in granita or sorbet. Be careful, though; a little bit goes a long way.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 9, 2007 3:05 PM

Rose water is also delish in an the Indian drink Lassi.

3 cups plain yogurt
1/2 cup milk
12 ice cubes
2 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
2 tsp rose water

Combine ingredients in a blender and process until yogurt is frothy and ice is crushed into small pieces. Pour into tall glasses and serve immediately.

from "Indian Home Cooking" by Suvir Saran

Posted by: CY | April 9, 2007 3:17 PM

I am a HUGE rhubarb fan - favorite dish is raspberry-rhubarb cobbler. The berry-rhubarb combo is always a hit, and raspberries cook down to a nicer texture than strawberries without fuss. I made a kosher-for-passover version last week that was a real hit.

Question: I read recently that there is a French company that makes rhubarb cider - does anyone know of a place in the DC area that imports this delicious-sounding beverage (or, if not, anyone in the DC are who makes it/knows how to make it)?

Thanks for your help!

Posted by: CaitVaughn | April 9, 2007 4:44 PM

Softened chopped onions, barely-stewed rhubarb and orange flesh (no pith, no membrane) makes an excellent accompaniment to meats such as lamb shank or duck leg. Last week, I extemporised and used home-made crème de myrtilles (blueberry liqueur) to provide the water and sugar for stewing the rhubarb - first-rate!

You could also grate a little fresh ginger into the stewing rhubarb: the resultant stew makes an excellent yoghourt-and-granola breakfast cup, and is wonderful in flavouring a panna cotta.

Posted by: Iain Liddell | April 10, 2007 3:07 AM

rosewater... you can make a nice sorbet, as was mentioned (pair with anything subtle and fruity), and one thing I particularly like doing is adding it to my bathwater (the water... NOT the syrup!)

as for rhubarb... I love a good strawberry/rhubarb or pear/rhubarb pie. I am not a fan of overly sweet pies, so the rhubarb add a nice tart complexity to it. For a dessert, you can serve poached pears and surround them in a glass with rhubarb compote (add small pieces of dried apricot while cooking) and some whipped cream.

Posted by: squirrel | April 10, 2007 5:27 AM

I added rhubarb to my daughter's traditional birthday apple pie, and it's been a favorite ever since. The trick is finding rhubarb in January!

Posted by: gubby | April 10, 2007 6:36 AM

Rhubarb - my favorite fruit. The only thing better than rhubarb/strawberry pie is rhubarb pie. I stew it with a minimal amount
of sugar, then add more, while tasting, near the end. If you
should avoid sugar, splenda gives the same result.

Posted by: Bruce | April 10, 2007 6:37 AM

I remember growing up in CT we had neighbors that had rhubarb growing next to their garage. They didn't care for it, so my Mom could use as much as she liked. We had strawberry/rhubarb pie every spring. Then the neighbors moved and the new people, probably not knowing what was growing next to the garage, ripped out the rhubarb. My family was very sad and now had to buy rhubarb in the store. I still buy it every spring.

Posted by: jlr | April 10, 2007 10:24 AM

When I was growing up in Connecticut, we had rhubarb growing by the road and wild strawberries growing by the pond and their seasons overlapped. Mom would make strawberry-rhubarb pie and tarts. The little strawberries were so sweet she didn;t need to add much sugar.

Now I live in Wheaton and I buy it at the store and make rhubarb sauce to go over pancakes on the weekend. I don't add much sugar to the sauce because my husband's diabetic so each sweetens it to taste. I use real maple sugar in mine.

Posted by: Historian | April 10, 2007 11:49 AM

You can find frozen chopped rhubarb at Wegmans in the frozen fruit section pretty much year-round.
My husband's favorite is rhubarb pie - the kind with the sweet creamy-egg topping that is added for the last 15 minutes of baking.

Posted by: Niki | April 10, 2007 12:21 PM

Rhubarb Betty from Marion Cunningham's Fanny Farmer Cookbook is wonderful--rhubarb baked with a topping of buttered bread crumbs, then served with fresh sliced strawberries and whipped cream or yogurt.

Posted by: Christine | April 11, 2007 11:37 AM

My mom grows rhubarb at home in PA and makes the BEST rhubarb cake. It's almost like a coffee cake with a thin sugary top and is always so moist. DELISH! Now I need to get the recipe from her!

Posted by: kc | April 19, 2007 10:50 AM

My mother-in-law would add some chopped rhubarb to custard pies.

That family also had a tradition of putting rhubarb sauce and syrup on french toast. Sort of a sweet/sour effect.

Posted by: Renee | April 19, 2007 11:19 AM

It is far easier to cook Rhubarb by chopping it in small section put in a baking dish and microwave it.. approximately 8m full power for 1/2 lb then add whatever you fancy. A. Da Costa

Posted by: A. Da Costa | April 20, 2007 11:04 AM

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