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Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:09 pm

Rhubarb: not just for dessert anymore

How to whip up rhubarb-peppercorn sauce

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It’s a red splash that contrasts with the explosion of green hues in the spring garden. In the days before freezing and the trucking in of produce grown far away, the first rhubarb was eagerly anticipated. These days, to gardeners and culinarians who’ve stayed close to the land, to the ever-increasing number of folks discovering the pleasures of eating seasonally and locally, and to chefs who are using seasonal ingredients in their menus, tart, lush-textured rhubarb remains a prime harbinger of spring, right up there with morels, new onions and garlic, and succulent greens and asparagus. Rhubarb’s nickname is “pie plant,” with good reason — it makes one of the most delectable of all pies. There are other wonderful rhubarb desserts: rhubarb crisp, rhubarb upside-down cake, rhubarb compote (by itself or over ice cream), and more, but there’s more to rhubarb than just dessert. I’d always assumed that rhubarb was native to America, but it’s not. A relative of buckwheat, rhubarb — which flourishes in cool climates — originated in western China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Siberia millennia ago. It was first used medicinally in the form of its dried roots, but over time culinary varieties were developed, and rhubarb eventually made its way through Russia and the Middle East to Europe as both medicine and food. It was highly valued: According to Clifford Foust and Dale Marshall, authors of books and other publications on rhubarb, it sold for many times more than such items as cinnamon or opium. Rhubarb was even sacred in the ancient Zoroastrian religion. In that religion’s creation legend, Gayomart, the primal man, spills his seed onto the ground as he dies; 40 years later a rhubarb plant springs up on that spot, and the first couple emerges from it. The ancients who first cooked with rhubarb used it in meat stews and drinks for its sour piquancy. It was only when sugar became inexpensive and widely available, in the 18th century, that rhubarb began figuring in desserts. Contemporary chefs are still making rhubarb desserts, but they’re also reaching back to reintroduce rhubarb as a sour or sweet-sour element in savory dishes. I recently had dinner in a St. Louis restaurant whose chef used rhubarb in both a fish and a dessert dish. Each was fantastic, and they were completely different. Locally, chef Michael Higgins at Maldaner’s is featuring a duck breast/house-made duck sausage entrée served with a rhubarb-orange sauce.
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
I originally created this recipe using pink peppercorns. Pink peppercorns look like bright rosy versions of regular peppercorns, but they’re unrelated — pink peppercorns are the dried fruit of the baie rose de Bourbon bush, originally found in Brazil. Spicy hot, with floral and herbaceous overtones, they are widely used in contemporary French cuisine and elsewhere. Pink peppercorns are available at specialty groceries and can be ordered through the mail or online. Locally, I’ve only seen them as part of a peppercorn mixture — black, white, pink, and green — so I often substitute cracked black peppercorns. The pink peppercorns make the sauce especially pretty, but black ones work well, too; each type gives the sauce a different aromatic dimension. I also sometimes include a little minced ginger. It’s a nice variation, but be sure not to add much, because it can easily overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Rhubarb-Peppercorn Sauce is especially good with grilled or roasted pork, chicken, duck, lamb, or oily fish such as salmon, trout, or tuna. It’s also a good condiment to serve with cheese. A cautionary note: It’s important to use only the rhubarb stalks, because the leaves contain toxic levels of oxalic acid. Traces of oxalic acid are harmless and found not only in rhubarb stalks but also in dozens of other fruits and vegetables, ranging from apples, blueberries, and peaches to spinach, broccoli, sweet corn, and potatoes — in fact, I suspect that the list of produce that doesn’t contain oxalic acid is shorter than the list of produce that does. So don’t worry about eating rhubarb — just don’t eat the leaves.

Rhubarb-Peppercorn Sauce
1 teaspoon butter or oil 1/3 cup finely chopped onion 1 tablespoon pink peppercorns or cracked      black peppercorns (less if desired) 2 or 3 cups chopped rhubarb (stems only,      trimmed and washed) 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) honey 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more if needed 1/2 cup water Pinch of salt
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter or warm the oil over medium low heat. Add the onion and pepper and stir to coat. Cook, uncovered, until the onion is translucent and golden. Add the rhubarb, honey, 1 tablespoon of sugar, water, and salt and stir to combine. Turn the heat to high and bring just to a boil, then lower the heat until the mixture is slowly simmering. Cook, uncovered, until the rhubarb has disintegrated and the mixture is thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with additional sugar or salt. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes approximately 2 cups.
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