Take my rhubarb...please!

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008

A friend recently shared a tongue-in-cheek reminiscence of how, back on the east coast, people in his community would lock their cars towards summer's end to ward off waking to find it not rifled through and tape-deckless, but stuffed with zucchini by some anonymous gardener. Zucchini larger and heavier than a newborn were left on doorsteps under cover of darkness. You get the idea.

Rhubarb can be like that in Southeast Alaska. Originally from the colder reaches of Asia, in Juneau this vegetable just grows, and grows and grows. If yours doesn't, try chopping it down to nubs, hacking its roots into several clumps, and dumping cinder blocks on top of it over the winter. It is the kind of plant that loves a challenge and should thrive with this adversity. Mine did.

Another friend, let's call her 'Rhubarb Commando', claimed to know the very best rhubarb patches downtown and offered to go on a pre-dawn stalking and poaching mission. This activity added excitement that would never manifest from the armloads of rhubarb brought around by beaming neighbors, and made the pilfered harvest seem like treasure instead.

However you get your rhubarb, the key to its continued appeal lies in creativity, or at least the willingness to try new things. For example, though strawberry rhubarb pie is a familiar favorite. rhubarb makes an equally good and perhaps more interesting marriage with other ingredients. Mellow blueberries or apples get a nice lift. Spike smooth custard with rhubarb. Rhubarb and tart cherries stand up to one another well. Try it with lemons, or, one of my favorites, sliced whole oranges, prepared Shaker-style. It is both delicious and picturesque. Stewed rhubarb is a flavorful and colorful filling for cakes, or a topping for puddings.

The true beauty of rhubarb, though, lies in its crossover versatility. In desserts, it acts as a fruit. In reality, it is a vegetable. It performs well in savory dishes of meat, poultry or fish as a relish, and works well with a variety of seasonings. Recipes pair rhubarb with ginger, cardamom, dill, or mustard for a start. Various wines and balsamic vinegar bring it out. It combines with celery, tomatoes, onions, garlic, blood oranges or raisins, or as a tangy, crunchy addition to salads. The trick is to keep looking, trying and tasting. With summer's abundance, there's little worry about running out.

One of my favorite rhubarb dishes appeared at an all-rhubarb potluck and featured something else not quite so ubiquitous but wonderfully Alaskan: white king salmon. (Thank you Brenna!) The fillets were topped with a combination of diced rhubarb, honey, Dijon mustard and seasonings. There might have been a splash of white wine. Wrapped in foil, the fish baked in a medium oven until the fillets were almost finished and the rhubarb cooked down into fantastic sauce. Buttered breadcrumbs sprinkled on top broiled 'til brown. Divine!

If you are conserving electricity or choose to cook outdoors, this would work equally well on a grill or over coals at the edge of a blazing solstice bonfire.

Happy summer, happy stalking!

• Andrea Mogil can be reached at PieintheSkyAK@aol.com.

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