Often when I sit down to write Sláinte! I find myself ruminating about my Dad’s favorite foods, which writing this ongoing series has revealed to me are almost always directly related to the dishes his Fermanagh-born and raised mother had prepared. This month, I drew a blank.
“What is there,” I mused, “that is connected to both spring and Irish food that I have not already addressed?” I wracked my brain to come up with something new. Nothing. I began mentally cataloguing spring plants in general. Tender leafy greens? Nope, did it. Mushrooms? Covered that too.
How about fruit? Hmmm. Apples? No, that’s autumn. Berries? No, summer.
Suddenly, in one of those startling mental flashes, I had it. Dad’s absolutely favorite spring treat: the pieplant. For those among you who do not know it as such, I will translate. Rhubarb.
Unlike my present home in California where seasons can only be divined by the clothes being promoted in the malls, in places such as Ireland and my birth-town Philadelphia, the year is divided into four distinct temperature ranges, and one can almost tell the season by what’s happening in the garden. Rhubarb makes its appearance just as daffodils, tulips, narcissus and hyacinths start poking their pretty heads up through the soil. Like spring bulbs, it too is a perennial that once planted needs little attention and will produce a crop that gets bigger every year.
In one respect, rhubarb is like liver. You either love it or hate it.
Count Dad and me in the former group. My Italian Mom never developed a fondness for rhubarb, and so she never cooked it. Once spring rolled around, however, the day inevitably arrived when Dad would stew up a bunch of the dark red stalks with a heaping cup of sugar, sometimes adding a pint of strawberries. It took a lot of coaxing to get me to taste his concoction though, and I admit to not developing a palate for rhubarb’s tart tang until I traveled in Ireland as a food writer.
I remember the instance of my conversion to rhubarb lover distinctly. It occurred on a sunny late spring morning at a manor/guest accommodation in County Sligo. Debonaire Percival, mistress of Temple House in Ballymote, presents her guests with a wide array of breakfast choices. Among the assortment of fresh and stewed fruits that momentous day was a container of soupy, syrupy, stringy rhubarb. Putting aside my childhood dislike and dutifully donning my food writer persona, I ladled some into a small bowl and topped it with a hefty spoonful of fresh creamy homemade yogurt. One taste did the trick. I went back for more.
Aside from sweet and tart, there was an elusive flavor I could not discern.
Determined to add this new sensation to my own cooking repertoire, I asked Deb Percival to share the recipe. She not only disclosed it was shavings of fresh ginger that had been added to the stewing liquid, but offered to show me the kitchen garden rhubarb patch.
To this city girl, the rhubarb planting was anything but a `patch.’ Sturdy red rhubarb stalks and their huge deep green leaves had for nearly twenty years been occupying a massive bed in a sunny corner of the garden which itself was a four-acre walled affair containing every manner of growing edible including a full orchard of ancient apple trees.
Deb confided, “In Ireland, we call rhubarb `the pieplant’ because we love it so in pies and crumbles, but I also like to serve it for breakfast.” Her voice dropped to an almost conspiratorial whisper. “Nothing wakes up the mouth like the tart tang of rhubarb.”
In the tart department, rhubarb has no peer except perhaps for sorrel, a green most often served as a piquant dressing for poached salmon or mellowed by potatoes in a creamy soup. Both contain high amounts of oxalic acid, a substance that when ingested forms compounds with calcium and iron that the digestive system cannot dissolve. Sorrel and its less sour cousin spinach fall in the digestible range, but rhubarb’s deep green leaves contain such a high concentration of oxalic acid that they are actually poisonous and must never ever be consumed.
Rhubarb’s notorious reputation for being harmful led to the word `rhubarb’ entering common Irish/English parlance as a dangerously heated argument or violent melee. Poor pieplant, so misunderstood here in the USA. In Ireland where it is treasured as a harbinger of spring, anyone with even a tiny bit of land plants a rhubarb bed. As soon as the cheery, cherry red stalks begin appearing, so do the delicious pies, crumbles, compotes, jams, jellies, and preserves.
The general public’s misunderstandings about rhubarb do not end with its stalks’ reputation for being as harmful as its toxic leaves. Although treated as a fruit and cooked with sugar, rhubarb is actually a vegetable.
The tomato is another contradiction found in kitchen gardens. In reality, tomatoes are fruits, even though they are universally treated as vegetables.
Both plants are sources for Vitamin A, a substance that is absolutely essential for human growth and eyesight.
Originally rhubarb was cultivated as a medicinal plant. Nearly 5,000 years ago in ancient China, rhubarb roots were dried and powdered and used as a laxative. Since the leaves are poisonous, one wonders how it was ever deduced that the stalks could be eaten safely. Rhubarb began appearing in English kitchen gardens during the Age of Exploration when sample plants were brought home by adventurous seafarers. As the time corresponded with England’s occupation of Ireland, rhubarb was also added to the gardens of the Anglo plantations. Even so, the pieplant did not secure a permanent place in cooks’ repertoires until Britain’s lucrative tea trade with China began in the 19th century.
In England, ginger (another gift of the Orient) is the preferred spice to enhance rhubarb’s flavor. When Americans prepare rhubarb, however, we almost always combine it with strawberries. Most probably, this is an innovation introduced by Irish immigrants since Wexford’s harvest of wonderful strawberries overlaps the rhubarb season. Perhaps the practice began because cooks wanted to intensify the red color.
Whatever the reason, rhubarb and strawberries are a match made in heaven. Adding strawberries to the mix lessens the amount of sugar or honey needed to disguise rhubarb’s tartness, but no amount of sweetener or fruit will ever completely mask rhubarb’s pucker power. Gnawing a raw stalk is all it takes to prove that in comparison lemons seem sweet. Even so, as this convert will heartily attest, once combined with a sweetening agent, the pieplant is one of spring’s most exotic and delicious offerings. Sláinte! ♦
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
3 cups rhubarb, cut in 2-inch pieces, all leaf remnants removed
5 pieces of fresh ginger., peeled and sliced one-quarter inch thick
2 cups yogurt (plain or vanilla)
Combine the sugar and water in anon-reactive saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve. Add the ginger pieces and bring to boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer for a few minutes to infuse the sugar-syrup with the ginger flavor. Add rhubarb pieces and simmer just until the pieces can be pierced by a fork. Remove from heat and refrigerate to halt the cooking process. For best flavor, serve only lightly chilled with dollops of creamy yogurt. Makes four servings.
NOTE: Rhubarb stalks are very tender and will cook rapidly. If cooked too long, the stalks will fall completely apart.
Baked and cooled 9-inch pie shell
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups water
5 cups rhubarb cut in 1-inch pieces
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream, whipped and sweetened to taste
Mix the sugar and one cup water in a medium-large saucepan and bring to boil, stirring. Add the rhubarb and cook, stirring once or twice, until the rhubarb is just fork tender. Remove the rhubarb from the cooking liquid with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reheat the syrup to boiling. Blend the cornstarch with the remaining water and add to the boiling syrup. Cook, stirring, until thickened and clear. Taste for sweetness, and if desired stir in more sugar until it dissolves. Remove from heat, add the reserved rhubarb, cool for five minutes and turn into the pie shell. Chill for several hours. Before serving, cover with whipped cream. Makes one 9-inch pie.
–Recipe courtesy Temple House, Ballymote, County Sligo
4 cups rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 pint strawberries, hulled and halved
2 cups sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup oatmeal flakes
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss rhubarb and strawberries with 1 cup sugar and place in an appropriately deep baking dish. Mix flour, oatmeal flakes, cup sugar and salt in a bowl and cut in butter with fingers until mixture is finely crumbled. Sprinkle crumble mixture evenly over rhubarb-strawberry mixture. Bake forty-five minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender, the crumble is golden brown, and the juice is bubbling in puddles. Remove from oven and cool. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream or ice cream. Makes 4-6 servings.