- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

At some time or other, every cook feels like an alchemist, turning something humble into culinary magic. That is certainly the way I feel when I cook with rhubarb.

The vegetable, in season from winter through early summer, looks like red celery stalks, but is actually a member of the buckwheat family and a close relation of the leaf vegetable sorrel. Never eat rhubarb’s green leaves, however; they contain high concentrations of the toxic chemical oxalic acid, and should be trimmed away completely.

The stalks, however, are perfectly safe. Not that you would ever want to eat them raw: They taste incredibly sour.

That sourness is an integral part of rhubarb’s magical transformation. Cut up the stalks and cook them gently with sugar, and rhubarb seems to turn into a fruit, developing a pleasantly tart-sweet flavor while its texture turns soothingly soft, almost silken. The overall experience is wonderfully cleansing to the palate, which is why at Spago I love to prepare rhubarb this way to serve alongside the ultra-rich French-style goose liver known as foie gras.

Rhubarb reaches its pinnacle, however, when it is prepared for dessert.

My mother loves to stew chunks of rhubarb with sugar, cinnamon sticks and strips of lemon zest. She’ll eat a bowl of the resulting compote hot or cold for dessert, all by itself, although I’ve always thought it is even better when you add a contrasting scoop of good vanilla ice cream.

One more ingredient, however, truly completes rhubarb’s magical transformation: early summertime’s fresh strawberries. Cook rhubarb and berries together and they develop a beautiful pinkish-red color, their textures and flavors intermingling to achieve a wonderful balance of sweet and sour, with each tasting becoming somehow more delicious than it is on its own.

I like to add a crumble topping to the rhubarb-strawberry mixture, turning it into a baked dessert without going to the trouble of making pie or cobbler dough. Top each serving with a scoop of vanilla or strawberry-swirl ice cream and you have a dessert that you simply have to experience to believe.

When you go shopping for the ingredients in the recipe that follows, look for rhubarb stalks with a nice dark-red color, firm enough to snap in half when bent, with cut edges that still look fresh rather than dry or withered. Be sure that the rhubarb and strawberries bake together long enough for the rhubarb to become fully tender. After baking, let the crumble rest for 15 minutes, which will allow the little bit of flour and the juices to thicken slightly before you scoop out individual portions.

One taste of the resulting dessert, and you’ll be convinced that you, too, are a culinary wizard.

RHUBARB AND STRAWBERRY CRUMBLE

Serves 8

RHUBARB-STRAWBERRY FILLING:

1 pound (500 g) rhubarb stalks (approximately 8 stalks), trimmed and cut into 2-inch (5-cm) pieces

2 pints (500 ml) large ripe strawberries, stemmed and quartered

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for preparing baking dish

1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar, plus extra for preparing baking dish

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped

2 tablespoons lemon juice

CRUMBLE TOPPING:

2 ounces (60 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup (125 ml) all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (125 ml) light brown sugar

1/2 cup (125 ml) rolled oats

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 quart (1 l) good-quality vanilla or strawberry ice cream (optional)

First, prepare the rhubarb-strawberry filling: Trim away and discard any traces of leaves from the rhubarb stalks, then cut the stalks into 2-inch (5-cm) chunks. Stem and hull the strawberries and cut them lengthwise into quarters. Set the berries and rhubarb aside.

With some butter, coat the bottom and side of a 10-inch (25-cm) diameter baking dish or casserole. Sprinkle some sugar over the butter all over the bottom and side, then tap out excess sugar back into the rest of the sugar.

In a nonreactive mixing bowl, whisk together the 1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar, flour and ginger. With a small, sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, with the knife tip, scrape the tiny seeds from inside the vanilla bean into the mixing bowl. Add the rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of small butter pieces. Toss all the ingredients together and empty them into the prepared baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C) and place the oven rack in the center.

In a clean mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the Crumble Topping. With your fingertips, massage and press them together until the butter completely blends with the other ingredients to form a crumbly paste. Evenly crumble the topping over the rhubarb-strawberry mixture in the baking dish.

Put the baking dish in the oven and bake until the crumble is golden brown and the rhubarb-strawberry mixture is bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and let it sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Then, with a large serving spoon, scoop the crumble into individual serving bowls. If you like, top each serving with a scoop of ice cream.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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