The English Are Coming! With Rhubarb and Custard!

Rhubarb and Custard

The rhubarb is a vegetable most often used as a fruit – in much the same way that the tomato is a fruit used as a vegetable. But unlike the ubiquitous tomato, rhubarb sometimes stymies American cooks. What’s to be done with this briefly available, bitter, even poisonous plant?

Well, there’s pie. In the nineteenth century, rhubarb was so strongly associated with pie that it was commonly called pie plant. And then there are the many variants of pie: crisps, crumbles, buckles. Rhubarb is so very assertive that it was not much eaten until and unless it could be sugared; prior to that, it was prized only for its medicinal properties. But other fruits have a mellowing effect on rhubarb’s harshness. Apples, especially, soften it without transforming its flavor. Personally, I believe that it’s a crime against strawberries to pair them with rhubarb – and it’s underselling the rhubarb as well!

Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart

Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart

Strawberries and rhubarb are a classic combination. They’re sweet and sour, bright and luxurious, irresistible as dessert, or as jam, or in just about any other context that I can rattle off. David Lebovitz recently extolled their virtue, cooked together with sweet wine and honey, as a compote.* And in the rhubarb entry of The Flavor Bible, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg place strawberries in bold caps with an asterisk, signifying that this is one of those “Holy Grail” pairings that are the most highly recommended by the greatest number of experts.

But then, you don’t need some fancy book to tell you that. One needs only look at the critical mass of strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes out there (a quick Google search yields more than four million results) to figure out that this is one of the most beloved flavor combinations in world cuisine.

Rhubarb-Vanilla Jam Pictorial

Rhubarb Jam Pictorial

You may consider this, dear readers, act two in the three-act May drama that I’ve come to think of as rhubarb-stravaganza. The tragedy, or perhaps the ecstasy, of being interested in seasonal cooking is that when the window opens for an ingredient — especially if it’s a relatively short window — one must take advantage.

The rhubarb window is open, folks. And here I am, milking it for all it’s worth.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Rhubarb Compote

Vanilla Ice Cream with Rhubarb Compote

Here are two things about rhubarb that you might not know, that you might find interesting, but that might put you off of using that red, tart, delicious celery lookalike:

Thing one is that the use of rhubarb as food is a relatively recent innovation, dating back in Europe only to the seventeenth century, according to the Wikipedia. Until then, rhubarb was used medicinally — as a laxative. Apparently, in Europe, in China, in the Middle East, and elsewhere, if you went to the doctor complaining of being stopped up, a strong dose of rhubarb was the cure.