As a child, I knew that rhubarb came from South Dakota.
After all, the south side of every farm's garage sprouted a ruffled border of broad and crinkled leaves. Every Memorial Day picnic ended with latticed wedges of rhubarb pie. Over the winter, the aunts and uncles sipped rhubarb wine from last year's crop while Grandma put the finishing touches on Sunday dinner.
In spring, rhubarb was as commonplace as lilacs. Desserts varied among rhubarb sauce, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb cobbler or rhubarb pie.
If Mom felt like fussing, we'd have rhubarb swirls. She'd pat a batch of Bisquick dough into a rectangle, cover it with chopped rhubarb, then roll it like a jellyroll. Inch-thick slices were laid into a 13-by-9 pan so you could see the swirls. Finally, she'd pour hot sugar syrup over the whole thing and bake it until the dough was golden and crackly and the rhubarb had melted into a gooey jam.
Drizzled with cream skimmed from the milk jar, it was a dessert that I was certain could not have existed in any other state, because my mom only lived in South Dakota.
It is good that we grow up, of course, even as it causes us to put aside our childhood certainties.
Crossing borders, I learned that rhubarb existed in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. I surmised that even North Dakota garages likely sported their own ruffled borders.
Perhaps the world was full of rhubarb.
But then, about a decade ago, while working on a cookbook about using rhubarb in both sweet and savory ways, rhubarb's rarity was restored.
Acquaintances who'd grown up in the South were dumbfounded by my task. "A cookbook about what? What is a rhubarb?"
It turns out that, while not limited to South Dakota, rhubarb is an exemplary food of the North — all the way around the globe.
Originating in northern China as a medicine, rhubarb then became a staple of northern Russia before making its way into the Nordic countries, whose immigrants brought it to South Dakota and elsewhere.
Today, Oregon, Washington and Michigan account for most of the U.S. production, providing the long stretch of cold temperatures that trigger a resting period, which spurs new growth.
Granted, there is a thing called "forced rhubarb" that's very big in the United Kingdom and involves growing rhubarb indoors in limited light. Its chief selling point is that it is markedly sweeter than ordinary rhubarb.
This makes no sense.
The whole point of eating rhubarb is to experience its tart, almost tannic, even daunting flavor. Nothing else "tastes like rhubarb." Rhubarb is itself, and nothing else. This leads to lovers and haters, and that is fine. More foods should inspire definitive opinions.
Maybe you have your own plants, perhaps from cuttings passed through generations, or you rely on the bounty of farmers markets. Now is the season, for a few puckery months. To those of us who pursue and persist in this Northern climate, rhubarb remains a certainty that we never outgrow.
A few things about rhubarb
If you're new to rhubarb or aren't quite sure how to cook with it, author Kim Ode has some answers.
Despite its time-honored presence in desserts, and its common name of "pie plant," rhubarb is a vegetable. Its Latin name is Rheum rhabarbarum.
Yes, its leaves have a high concentration of oxalic acid and can be toxic, but most references note that you'd have to eat a lot of rhubarb leaves, as in pounds, to cause a problem.
Harvested rhubarb keeps for several days in the produce bin of your fridge. To keep it even longer, wrap stalks in aluminum foil, protecting ends, but leaving it loose enough to let the ethylene gas escape.
Rhubarb is low in carbohydrates and high in vitamins C and K, fiber and potassium. Rhubarb is also a rich source of antioxidant plant compounds.
Rhubarb is almost 95% water, which affects how it's prepared. If a recipe calls for just a little cooking liquid, don't worry — it will be fine.
Although an initial heating of rhubarb might result in more sizzle than you think is right, remember that rhubarb breaks down quickly. Be patient and the result will be less soupy with a more intense rhubarb flavor.
Like many vegetables, roasting rhubarb not only enhances the flavor, but provides a nice base for both sweet and savory recipes or alone as a topping. You can freeze roasted rhubarb, too.
Fresh rhubarb is easy to freeze. Just wash it, cut it into half-inch pieces and put it in freezer bags, leaving a good half-inch of space at the top. Thaw and drain before using.
An alternative way to freeze: blanch the cut and washed rhubarb (plunge it into boiling water for a minute, and then ice water for another minute). Drain well and arrange in a single layer on a tray and freeze until rhubarb is solid. Transfer to freezer bags and freeze.
Cook with the author
Kim Ode will be teaching an online class, "Reinventing Rhubarb," May 28 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. Cost is $60; for more information and to register, go to northhouse.org.
Rhubarb Graham Muffins
Note: From "Rhubarb Renaissance" by Kim Ode (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012).
• 1 1/4 c. finely crushed graham crackers (1 sleeve of crackers)
• 1 c. flour
• 1/2 c. brown sugar
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• Pinch of salt
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 c. buttermilk
• 1/3 c. canola oil
• 3/4 c. rhubarb, chopped into 1/4-in. pieces
• 1/3 c. shredded sweetened coconut, optional
• Decorative sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat muffin cups with cooking spray or line with paper baking cups.
Whisk together cracker crumbs, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the egg, buttermilk and oil. Add to dry ingredients and stir until just moistened. Fold in rhubarb and coconut, if using.
Fill muffin cups two-thirds full. Sprinkle with decorative sugar. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until golden. Remove muffin pan from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Carefully remove muffins from pan and serve.
Makes about 2/3 cup.
Note: This sweet-savory condiment is a natural with rhubarb. It's a great addition to a cheese plate, or an accompaniment to grilled meats. This is a "brighter" adaptation of the original recipe in "Rhubarb Renaissance" by Kim Ode. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012).
• 1 c. rhubarb, cut in 1/2-in. pieces
• 1/4 c. finely minced red onion
• 1/4 c. chopped dried mission figs
• 1/4 c. dry white wine
• 2 tbsp. sugar
• 1 tbsp. mustard seeds
• 1 tsp. dry mustard
• 1 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
Place the rhubarb, onion, figs, wine and sugar in a saucepan and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add mustard seeds and dry mustard and continue to simmer until the mixture is thick and syrupy, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add vinegar and cook for 30 seconds more. Set aside to cool before using.
Frozen Roasted Rhubarb Meringue Pie
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: This pie needs to freeze at least six hours, and preferably overnight, so plan ahead. From "Rhubarb Renaissance" by Kim Ode (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012).
For the crust:
• 1 3/4 c. finely crushed graham crackers (12 large crackers)
• 1/4 c. powdered sugar
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
• 2 tbsp. milk
For the filling:
• 3 c. rhubarb, cut in 1-in. pieces
• 1/3 c. powdered sugar
• 1 tbsp. Triple Sec liqueur or orange juice
• Pinch salt
• 2 egg whites
• 1/2 c. granulated sugar
• 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
To prepare the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a pie plate with cooking spray. Stir together cracker crumbs, powdered sugar, butter and milk until well combined. Reserving 1 tablespoon of crumbs for garnish, press the rest into the pie plate, creating an even layer across the bottom and up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes, then let cool on a wire rack.
To prepare the filling: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place rhubarb in a shallow baking dish, such as a pie plate, and sprinkle powdered sugar evenly over fruit. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring once, until rhubarb is very soft. (Late summer rhubarb may have less moisture than the first rhubarb of spring, so watch carefully, adding a tablespoon of water if it seems to be scorching before it's soft.)
Carefully place roasted rhubarb in a blender and purée with Triple Sec (or orange juice) and salt. Or whisk briskly in a bowl to create a rough purée. Set aside.
In a saucepan over which a medium bowl will fit, bring about 2 inches of water to a boil. While the water is heating, whisk together egg whites, granulated sugar, and cream of tartar in a medium bowl. Reduce heat to keep the water at a simmer and place the bowl over the saucepan. With a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat the whites until foamy, about 3 minutes. Increase speed to high and beat until the whites begin to appear glossy, moving the beaters around the bowl, about 3 minutes more. Remove bowl from the pan and set on a counter; continue beating mixture until the meringue holds a stiff peak when the beaters are lifted.
Fold the rhubarb purée into the warm meringue until no streaks remain, then scrape into the graham cracker crust. Smooth top and sprinkle the reserved crumbs over the filling. Place in the freezer, uncovered, for an hour, then gently cover with plastic wrap and freeze until solid, at least 6 hours or preferably overnight. Remove from freezer about 10 minutes before serving to make slicing easier.
Kim Ode is the author of "Rhubarb Renaissance" and a retired Star Tribune staff writer.