Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rueing Rhubarb, Stewing Rhubarb

Thumper and Tiffany (at right).
I should hate rhubarb.  I really should. It is probably the wicked plant that did in my lovable pet bunny rabbit, Tiffany.

Tiffany was a big, friendly white rabbit with brown ears, a rakish brown patch on one eye, and a sprinkling of brown spots on his back. Yes, his back.  Tiffany was named Tiffany when I thought he was a girl.

When Thumper, my female Dutch rabbit, gave birth to four little bunnies, it was a major clue that Tiffany must be a boy rabbit.

His hefty size and pleasant nature should have been a tip-off.   Buck rabbits tend to be more easygoing, while does are a bit more wary and territorial. Thumper was downright aggressive--she growled, attacked my gloved hand, and pivoted to keep me in her line of sight when I had to reach inside her cage.  The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog had nothing on her.

Tiffany, on the other hand, was a doofus. Which was probably why he nibbled on a toxic plant in the first place. Wild rabbits would know better than to dine on rhubarb leaves. But I was in my early teens  and didn't know any more than he did about rhubarb.  I had never tasted rhubarb pie; I couldn't even describe what rhubarb was. But a rhubarb plant was growing in the fenced pool area, where I often set the rabbits free to romp, and I should've educated myself about poisonous plants before letting Tiffany loose in there.

Though maybe it was the rhododendrons he ate, in which case I am still responsible for his demise, but I can at least love rhubarb without any pangs of guilt.

Because if no deceased rabbits are involved, rhubarb is simply splendid. It grows easily, is one of the first vegetables in the garden to spring to life after winter, and can be transformed into tartly sweet pies, jams, jellies, coffeecakes, compotes, chutneys, syrups, and wine.

We have several rhubarb patches in the yard, though one of them is now consigned to be For Decoration Only. That's because last year, when the resident teen tripped over a bucket of motor oil drained from her truck, the patch was inundated with the nasty runoff.

Rhubarb flowers
This year, somebody else nearly backed over the plants; for weeks, they stood in a shrieking row at the lip of the deep tire rut, looking like Victorian ladies who've seen a mouse.  They will be allowed to live out their lives in peace, flowering at will and flaunting giant green leaves.

The first of this year's crop, taken from the stress- and oil-free patches, made its way into a chicken-rhubarb dish. The next harvest became an upside-down rhubarb coffeecake, using this recipe from The New York Times:

When I got to work on that recipe, at first I thought, well, how fussy. "Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper," it said.  "Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a buttered baking sheet."

This was a cake I was making, I thought. I'm not roasting plutonium. I decided my grandmother's reliable springform pan wasn't going to leak, so I ignored the layers of containment. (I also used regular flour instead of cake flour, because I didn't have cake flour.)

Well.  The harsh fumes surging from the kitchen told me that there was a reason for all the containment, actually. The cake calls for a thick sugary syrup that's poured into the pan first, then topped with the rhubarb mixture and finally the batter. That syrup? It likes to ooze out of the pan and across the cookie sheet and onto the oven floor, it turns out.

A quick clean-up of the oven floor and replacement of the cookie sheet with a sturdy rimmed baking sheet saved the cake, which turned out delicious, despite missing its layer of caramelized syrup. I'm still wondering how the cake would have any of this glaze on it at all, even if you swathe it in layers of foil, because wouldn't that process just yield a delicious cake along with a pile of gooey foil? I guess this calls for making another cake.

Other great rhubarb recipes that are mainstays at our house:

Rhubarb Pecan Cake, page 44, Bundt Cake Bliss
Rhubarb Crisp Pie, page 51, Pies and Tarts (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library)
Strawberry Rhubarb Crunch, page 25 (and just about every other recipe), The Joy of Rhubarb

And don't forget we Washingtonians live in the nation's leading rhubarb-producing state, and you can even visit Sumner, the rhubarb pie capital, to enjoy the Rhubarb Festival.

Old willow ware viewed through windows in rhubarb leaf chewed by slugs.
Which apparently can eat rhubarb leaves without harm.