Monday, June 7, 2010

The Dessert Vegetable

In early summer there are very few vegetables ready to eat; peas and lettuce are plentiful, but not much else is far enough along. The rhubarb plant, however, is a wonderful spring vegetable requiring no work other than being harvested. It comes back each year without any coaxing, thinning, weeding or transplanting; and what is best of all, you eat it for dessert! In the grocery store rhubarb can cost up to $4 a pound, but if you live near gardens it is likely that even a stranger would be willing to share rhubarb with you because the plants are such prolific producers.
Even if you don’t own any pans to cook in you have to appreciate the beauty of rhubarb stalks. In which other plant can you observe such a splendid shade of crimson without visiting an equatorial climate? And if you do bake, or someone will make a rhubarb concoction for you, doesn’t each bite make you think to yourself, “Rhubarb is sweet and tart and splendid. If I had been in charge of inventing vegetables I never would have thought of this!”
While I hope that you have the opportunity to experience strawberry rhubarb pie—no other pie can measure up to it. I am not sharing that recipe here. (Ok, ok, 2 ½ cups each of strawberries and rhubarb, 1 cup of sugar, 2 Tbs of flour, mix it together, let it sit for 10 minutes, put a homemade pie crust below and above it and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Go!) For I would like you to taste for yourself that rhubarb need not be limited to use with strawberries. The two of them do make a wonderful pair, but strawberries are usually fairly expensive while rhubarb is just about falling from the sky. I was skeptical of the rhubarb alone concept when I was little (especially after tasting it raw; it’s very strange and tastes like plastic), but my Mom gave me a piece of this bread and I am fairly certain I ate half of the loaf myself as a picky 6 year old child. Really. You’re going to love this.
If you haven’t baked with rhubarb before or don’t have buttermilk on hand see my notes at the bottom.

My Mom’s Rhubarb Bread (Or muffins!)
Yeild: 2 loaves or 24 muffins

In a large bowl mix:
1 egg
1 ½ cups of brown sugar
2/3 cup of oil (I use canola)
1 cup of buttermilk*

In a separate bowl sift:
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 ½ cups unbleached flour

Sprinkle the flour mixture onto the wet ingredients about ½ cup at a time and stir to combine.
Fold in:
1 ½ cups of diced rhubarb**
1 ½ tsp vanilla
½ cup of chopped walnuts (you could skip these, but they add a really nice texture, so even if you are not a fan of nuts I would encourage you to add them anyway).

Pour into two greased bread pans or 24 muffin tins. Optional topping: Mix ½ cup sugar with 1 Tbs of butter, divide into two portions and sprinkle each over one of the breads before baking. Bake one hour at 325F or until a toothpick inserted to the centers comes out clean.

*Cultured buttermilk can be found along side other dairy products in the grocery store, but can be easily substituted for by adding 1 Tbs of white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of milk. The milk will thicken and curdle slightly, which is perfect for most baking recipes because the beneficial cultures in purchased buttermilk would be killed during baking anyway. In this recipe yogurt or sour cream are also good substitutes.

**Rhubarb is related to celery and has very similar thick vertical strings, which will not be noticeable once baked. Rhubarb is best cut into 1 cm wide pieces (across the stalk in the narrow direction) with a good sharp knife. I usually cut a few long stalks into thirds and line them up to chop a bunch at once. The whole stalk can be used, though I usually cut off the bottom, which is white and a little tougher, as well as any dried out or insect eaten spots.

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