By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
Have you ever taken a bite out of raw rhubarb? We’re talking really tart. The same kind of bite as eating a raw cranberry. It’s spring, which means the arrival of one of my favorite dessert ingredients.
I feel really connected to rhubarb naturally. My dad was a huge fan of the traditional combination of strawberries and rhubarb. His favorite way to enjoy it was in a pie. But over the years, I changed it up somewhat and delved into strawberry rhubarb crisps, coffee cake, and tarts. Fortunately rhubarb was still kicking around in the markets every June when I baked Dad his beloved dessert each year for Father’s Day. My sister Marcia and I would make jam in the summer and take him jars of this marriage of sweet berries and tart rhubarb. Dad would slather it on his toast in the morning.
I’ve adopted his love for that duo. Back in 1981, my husband Bob and I bought a modest house in Bloomfield Township, Mich. It had a spectacular yard, probably 3/4 of an acre. The previous owner was a farmer of sorts. He had planted a large vegetable garden each year. The bonus for us were three crops that came back bigger and better each spring. Asparagus spears popped up all over the property, we had a raspberry patch that was at least 30-feet-long and six-feet-wide, and a major rhubarb patch that flourished. I had just opened my first store, Bonnie’s Patisserie, so I had an outlet for the 90-pound crop I harvested. Strawberry rhubarb tarts galore!
Rhubarb originated in China over 2,000 years ago, and was used primarily for medicinal purposes. The Chinese were on to something: rhubarb has antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial qualities. It started to appear in England and Scandinavia by the 18th century.
Rhubarb is consumed in northern and eastern European countries where the climate is conducive for its growth. (The plant prefers cooler climates for growing, as it does not do well in hot weather.) There is a classic dessert from England, Rhubarb Fool, a combination of stewed rhubarb and fresh whipped cream or vanilla custard. In the United States, rhubarb grows mainly in Maine, Washington State, the Upper Midwest, and the Great Plains. It is in these parts of the country where rhubarb desserts are most popular.
Rhubarb is a perennial rhizome, returning and spreading year after year. There are several varieties, from pale pink to deep ruby red. Some stalks have a green tint. The color does not seem to impact the flavor, with all tasting about the same. Do not eat the leaves as they are poisonous, containing a high concentration of oxalate or oxalic acid. Too bad, they are very attractive and plentiful. The good news is that rhubarb is very low in calories, but alas, to make it palatable, we need to add lots of sugar to balance out the tartness.
One could consider using rhubarb as a vegetable, which it really is, instead of a fruit. My sister Marcia makes a hearty lentil soup and adds rhubarb as the acid instead of lemon juice or vinegar. It can also be used in salsas, barbecue sauce, chutneys, or even paired with pan roasted chicken pieces. Think outside the box!
I created today’s recipe 40 years ago to use up my massive rhubarb crop back in Michigan. We would sell it in my patisserie. It seems like a “fussy” recipe because it has three parts to it, but they can all be done ahead of time and none of the steps are difficult. I even make a double batch of the tart dough and topping, freezing half of each for a future time. Only the filling needs to be made a day or two before baking.
Consider using the tart dough for other fruit tarts. The shell can be baked all the way through, cooled, spread with vanilla pastry cream, and topped with fresh berries or bananas. The streusel topping can be used for other purposes, including individual fruit crisps in ramekins. If you have excess raw rhubarb, it freezes: cut the stalks into 1/2” pieces. Freeze it on baking sheets. When frozen collect it in a freezer Ziploc bag. One last tip: this tart pairs very well with vanilla ice cream.
Tell us here at The Insider how you thought about rhubarb “outside the box.” Did you use it in a dessert? Or did you create a savory dish with it? We all love new ideas!
Strawberry Rhubarb Tart
Yield: 10 servings
1 oz. butter
4 c. 1/2” pieces rhubarb
1/2 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 c. sliced fresh strawberries
½ c. flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
2 oz. cold butter, cut into bits
4 oz. butter, room temperature
1/4 c. sugar
1 lg. egg yolk
1 1/3 c. flour
Make filling: In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the rhubarb. Cook until the juices run clear, about 5-7 minutes. Add the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Cover; cook until just tender, about 5-7 minutes. Blend in the sliced strawberries. Cool. Reserve. Can be made ahead and kept refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before use.
Make the topping: Combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl. Blend in the cut-up butter using fingertips until the butter is well distributed. The mixture should resemble coarse meal. Reserve. Topping can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before use.
Make the dough: Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Blend in the yolk. Add the flour and mix until the dough comes together. Dough can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated. Return to room temperature before use.
Assembly: Spray a 10” fluted removable bottom tart pan with pan release. Press the dough evenly into the bottom and up the sides of the pan, keeping the top of the crust smooth. Prick the dough with a fork. Freeze for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
Preheat oven to 375°. Place the tart on a cookie sheet lined with foil. Place a piece of foil in the tart. Set a smaller cake pan on top of the tart to weigh down the foil. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove cake pan and foil. Bake another 8 minutes. If the crust bubbles up, take a damp paper towel and gently press the bubbles until they relax.
Add the rhubarb filling, spreading it evenly in the tart. Sprinkle on the topping. Reduce oven temperature to 350°. Bake for 45 minutes or until the center of the filling begins to bubble up. Cool completely. Using a small sharp knife, loosen the top of the crust from the pan. Carefully remove the outer ring. Serve at room temperature.
Press dough into the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.