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Rhubarb: better late than never, and right on time

I’ve been horribly distracted.

Between radishes and fennel, beets and blueberries—not to mention the gaping black hole that was my thesis, which, now completed(!), shall no longer loom darkly over Orangette—I almost forgot about rhubarb, my favorite fruit that’s actually a vegetable. Its puckery yet delicate flavor is, to me, the epitome of spring, and the sound of a sharp knife slicing through its purply-red stalks—like a fleshy, feminine version of celery—never ceases to satisfy. Nonetheless, I’ve had a wandering eye; the generous spread of springtime fruits and vegetables has a way of making a girl terribly fickle. But a couple of days ago—and not a moment too soon—my gaze fell on a very patient basket of rhubarb, languishing on a shelf in the produce section. And that very same day, a strangely fortuitous rhubarb-related fact tumbled into my lap.*

Perhaps you have heard of Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who invented the modern scheme of taxonomy? We have Linnaeus to thank for bringing a little Latin into our daily lives by creating, in 1758, the system by which we classify plants and animals into genera and species. What you may not know, however, is that while Linnaeus may have completely revolutionized the biological sciences, what he really cared about was rhubarb.

In Linnaeus's time, Sweden was very poor. Being a wise scientist and resourceful citizen, he cooked up a scheme to import exotic plants and animals, hoping that they could be raised for profit in his country. Among his many experiments and test crops—from tea to coffee, ginger, coconuts, silkworms, cotton, clams, and rhubarb—all were failures except the last, and late in his life, Linnaeus would be recorded as saying that the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement. Apparently, even the most enduring and far-reaching scientific inventions pale in importance next to a rosy stalk of rhubarb. This was a man who clearly had his priorities in order.

He also must have direct access to powers of divine intervention. As fate would have it, May 23, the day that rhubarb caught my eye and brought me back to my senses, was Linnaeus’s birthday. So I celebrated in the best way that I could imagine, with a warm bowl of baked rhubarb and fresh ricotta. It may have been a big day for Linnaeus and the Swedes, but truth be told, I had plenty to celebrate myself—like a reunion with rhubarb.

*Thank you, Garrison Keillor and The Writer's Almanac.

Baked Rhubarb with Fresh Ricotta
Adapted from Saveur

As with most rhubarb recipes, this one calls for what seems like a truckload of sugar. Be not afraid, and don't skimp: you'll need it to counter the vegetable's natural sourness. This rustic recipe yields wonderfully tender, sweet-tart stalks, which you'll serve in a bath of their syrupy, orange-accented cooking juices. Fresh ricotta makes for a humble and delicious accompaniment—rich, creamy, and with the texture and mild dairy sweetness of a good cheesecake. If you don't have access to good-quality fresh ricotta, skip it entirely; don't use the bland supermarket stuff.

6 good-sized stalks rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Fresh ricotta

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the rhubarb into a medium baking dish, and sprinkle the sugar and orange zest on top of it. Add enough water to the baking dish to just cover the rhubarb (about 4 cups; the rhubarb will likely float). Transfer the dish to the oven, and cook, uncovered, until the rhubarb is very soft but not falling apart, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the rhubarb to a large shallow bowl. Pour the juices from the baking dish into a medium saucepan. Boil the juices over medium-high heat until thick and syrupy, 15-20 minutes; then pour the reduced juices over the rhubarb in the bowl.

Serve the rhubarb warm or at room temperature, with a generous spoonful of fresh ricotta.

Serves 4-6.


Blogger Clare Eats said...

oooh that looks good! I am going to make this on the weekend for sure! Thanks :)

10:26 PM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Molly! aah, memories of Linnaeus. I had my share of him last summer when I did some volunteer work at the Smithsonian. Much time was spent perusing over old (and frighteningly valuable) volumes. If only I'd known he liked rhubarb I might have felt a greater kinship with him. The recipe sounds delicious. And oddly enough I've never bought fresh ricotta before. Which is probably why I hardly ever buy it at all.. Its at the top of my list now though. And congrats on finishing your thesis!

11:53 PM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Hello. I am new to your blog and am enjoying it very much. Would you suggest to use Creme Fraiche instead of Ricotta? Thanks!

8:40 AM, May 26, 2005  
Anonymous Lauren said...

Molly, congratulations on finishing your thesis. What a huge accomplishment! And what a way to celebrate. I hope you have something very fun planned for yourself--possibly a new kitchen appliance?

4:47 PM, May 26, 2005  
Blogger The Cookie Club said...

I enjoy your posts so very much! You always manage to weave a bit of everything into each one & the pictures make my tummy rumble. I'll have to try this recipe soon since it's in season!

7:02 PM, May 26, 2005  
Anonymous elizabeth said...

hi molly, congrats on finishing the dissertation. im justing getting my feet wet with mine, and i realize what an accomplishment it will be to hand it in. most impressive! very excited to try rhubarb and ricotta. and have passed on the linnaeus info to my mum who is doing an exhibit on him.

i have a new dreamy ricotta recipe. oven to 375. olive oil baking pan. pinch of saffron sprinkled in bottom of pan with grind of pepper as well. smooth container of ricotta over saffron area. bake for 25 min or until cheese is all golden. serve on salad of arugula and thinly sliced fennel with tame vinegrette and some slices of warm bread. mmmmm.

3:38 AM, May 27, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Ah yes, rhubarb! I've been doing some rhubarb-ing too - and how I agree with those absurd amounts of sugar! Will have to find some fresh ricotta, or maybe even try my hand at making my own... Thanks for the info on Linnaeus, I thought rhubarb was something that had always just been around here in Scandinavia!

7:34 AM, May 27, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

Congratulations on finishing your thesis! That is a phenomenal accomplishment. I've been eyeing rhubarb stands at the farms nearby - maybe I need to pay them a visit ...

4:34 AM, May 28, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Molly ! such tragedy, my cheese man has no fresh ricotta.. very perplexing. Although he also sold me a cheese today called Chaligny that I think must have been haphazardly labelled because I can find no such cheese mentioned ANYWHERE on the internet. It has caused me a great deal of stress! The search for fresh ricotta continues..

10:01 AM, May 28, 2005  
Blogger Dawn said...

Rhubarb is a favorite of mine as well. Although I would prefer mine on top of a scoop of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream.

I have never made a sauce by baking the rhubarb. I will definitely try it though, as stirring while it cooks in a pan takes forever.

I usually make a Rhubarb Crisp. Instead of apples, use Rhubarb.

If you add strawberries to your Rhubarb you won't have to add as much sugar.

9:56 AM, May 29, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks, Clare Eats! Did you get a chance to bake some rhubarb this weekend? Yum.

Michele (x2), it's high time that you baked some rhubarb for your old Smithsonian pal Linnaeus. I'm so sorry to hear that your cheese man doesn't have fresh ricotta, though, because it's absolutely delicious. I love to eat the stuff straight from the spoon, like a subtly sweet, not-too-rich cheesecake. Keep me posted on your hunt, and good luck with your other mystery cheese! Mmmm, mystery cheese...

Foodiechickie, creme fraiche would make a very nice substitute for the ricotta. Great idea!

And thank you, Lauren! It feels *terrific* to have this nasty thesis milestone behind me--and yes, I *have* been celebrating! Only a few hours after I handed it in, I hopped on a plane to the East Coast, where I spent a few days with a very handsome and wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker (more on that to come) and then drank lots of Champagne at the wedding of one of my half-brothers. I'm all for celebrating.

Thank you, The Cookie Club! I hope you like the recipe--please do report back!

Liz, your ricotta recipe sounds fantastic...reminds me a bit of your hallumi (sp?) method! I'll have to give it a whirl soon, especially because my friend Kate just brought me a little box of saffron from India. Wanna come over for ricotta and a gin and tonic?

And Zarah Maria, good job on your recent rhubarb-ing! Your compote and jam recipes look delicious. I'll have to give your recipes a try before the season passes...

And Tara, thank you! And yes, get yourself some rhubarb!

And Dawn, thank you for the excellent rhubarb pointers. This recipe is great with vanilla ice cream, just as you suggested--really, it's hard to go wrong with your accompaniment, as long as it's creamy and dairy-y! And I love rhubarb and strawberry-rhubarb crisps too. Mmmm, so much to bake...

7:49 AM, May 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

u should def. try some of these:

8:35 AM, May 31, 2005  
Blogger Lex Culinaria said...

That sounds divine. I love rhubarb and so does my husband, plus, I love ricotta, so there you go. You always have the best recipes here. Howe do you do it all the time?

9:23 PM, May 31, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Anonymous, thanks for the tip--that looks like a terrific site.

And Lex Culinaria, thank you! So glad to hear that you're a rhubarb fan, not to mention a devotee of ricotta. And as for my choice of recipes, well, I write about what I love. Looks as though we have similar palates...

10:04 AM, June 01, 2005  
Blogger rinilini said...

After reading the Rhubarb recipe and other comments, thought I would ask the bloggers if anyone out there has a recipe for Rhubarb scones. I have gone through every search engine I can think of and can't find one.

5:01 PM, June 14, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Rinilini, I don't have a rhubarb scone recipe to speak of (and I'm out of town right now and thus unable to access my cookbooks!), but we'll see if anyone else replies with one. I feel as though I've seen a lot of recipes in recent years for little rhubarb cakes or muffins...you might look at the treatment of rhubarb in those recipes and, if it seems feasible, work it into your favorite basic scone recipe.

7:52 AM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Emily said...

I'm massively behind the times with this one, so I apologize in advance!
I saw the first rhubarb of the season last week, and instantly grabbed two handfuls and raced home to find a good recipe for them. I found yours and immediately set to work to get those gorgeous stalks in the oven. Mmmm....pure bliss.
I grew up on straight rhubarb pie and rhubarb crisp (no fancy schmany strawberry mixture for us!) and this was absolutely what I was looking for. I added a touch of vanilla extract and served it with yogurt (no fresh ricotta at the market) and it was quite lovely.
Thank you, Molly!

8:21 PM, April 09, 2008  
Blogger Elke said...

First of all, I have to say, I love your blog - March 2009 cannot come soon enough. I just finished a light dinner of your mushrooms with fresh mozzarella and yum yum, and I've several more of your recipes on my radar for this month. but I do have to say, because greek is my first true love, and latin just a distant boring cousin, that Linnaeus brought a little greek to our daily lives when he coined taxonomy. You have your loves, and I have mine :)

PS. congratulations on the first anniversary! Hope the celebrations (and champagne-induced sleeps) keep you away from blogging for a few more days yet.

7:40 PM, August 11, 2008  
Blogger Judith said...

I too am massively behind with this comment but I have only just stumbled on your blog, such is the way of the blogoshere. Anyhoo just wanted to pass on a rhubarb tip my granny taught me: after you've trimmed, washed and sliced the stalks, pour boiling water onto it and leave for a minute or so. Then drain and proceed with whatever you're going to use the 'barb for. The boiling water treatment seems to reduce the tartness and you can get away with using much less sugar.

I like to bake rhubarb and blueberries together - it's a good combination.

12:15 PM, February 12, 2010  
Anonymous Myriam S. said...

Dear Molly,

I like the idea of baking the rhubard and also adding the orange zest. My mother (may she rest in peace) used to pair the rhubard with strawberries and make either a compote or a pie and this helped cut down on the sugar. The rhubard and strawberries are a natural together.

2:10 AM, March 07, 2011  
Anonymous Arthi said...

Grabbed a few stalks of rhubarb from the Farmer's Market this morning and am ready for a delightful snack!
I'm knee deep in my Masters thesis (lit review, ARGH!) and feeling utterly overwhelmed and miserable and am pretty sure this'll pick me right up!
Thanks :)

5:49 PM, June 25, 2011  

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