Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Don't stay out of the rhubarb

I admit it: until recently, I was terrified of rhubarb.

No, I didn't think it was one of the monsters who lived under my bed, nor did I fear it would jump out of the refrigerator and attack me in the middle of the night. I was just worried it would kill me.

Where did this unreasonable phobia develop? As best as I can guess, during high school biology class, when I learned that the leaves of the rhubarb plant are filled with the poison oxalic acid. For some reason, that left a very strong impression on me - perhaps because we also learned that as little as 2 tablespoons of antifreeze can kill an adult. (And why is antifreeze so toxic? Because the body metabolizes it into oxalic acid. You see the theme of the lesson.)

In my mind, "a little bit of antifreeze" soon morphed into "a little bit of rhubarb," and I began treating the plant the way I treated pufferfish: as a high-risk edible. I did indulge in the occasional slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie (as well as the occasional slice of pufferfish), but still, I figured the handling was best left to professionals.

Until last week. Buoyed by Swissy Pie's declaration that he loved rhubarb, I decided that really, I was well-educated enough to distinguish the leaves of the friggin' plant from the rest of it, dammit. So when we went to F├╝nfschilling, a farm/restaurant in Germany that sells its own top-notch produce, I picked out a few stalks (which had already been stripped of their leaves, anyway), plopped them down alongside the strawberries and apples, and took them home.

We were so busy with stuffing ourselves with strawberries and quark that it took a few days for me to get around to the rhubarb. OK, so maybe I was procrastinating, just a little. Besides, I didn't know what to make. At first I was leaning toward a classic pie, but I'd just made an apple and pear tarte tatin to use up some rapidly ripening Alexanders in my fruit basket, as well as a tomato tart for similar reasons. So I decided to stick with the basics and make a compote, which we could have with quark or vanilla ice cream.

No more than 20 minutes could have elapsed between when I took the rhubarb from the refrigerator to when I stuck the finished compote back it. It's really that easy. And it's pretty yummy, too.

So for anyone else out there who's afraid of rhubarb, don't be. I just had some with a scoop of ice cream, and I'm not dead yet. (And if that doesn't convince you, it turns out there's oxalic acid in many other foods too, including spinach, black pepper, most berries, cocoa, and chocolate. Bet you've been eating oxalic acid all your life!)

Basic Rhubarb Compote

  • 500 g rhubarb (about 5 stalks)
  • 200 g sugar (about 3/4 cups)
  • 2 Tbsp water

For best flavor, choose firm, bright red stalks that aren't too thick. (Thicker stalks are stringier.)

Lop off the tops just where they pinch in (before the leaves begin), and trim the bottoms where the stalks were cut.
Slice the rhubarb into 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces.

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the rhubarb, sugar, and water.
Stir occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is simmering, cover the pot and cook until the rhubarb is tender, 5-10 minutes depending on the size of the rhubarb.

Cool and store in the refrigerator until needed.

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Blogger Global Librarian said...

When I was a kid, we had an enormous rhubarb plant in the backyard. My mom would give each of us a dixie cup of sugar. Then we would grab a stalk of rhubarb, wash it down with the garden hose and stick it in the sugar. Each bite was preceded by a sugar dip until the entire stalk was gone.

Mmm... I love rhubarb.

And I am still alive!

By the way, my favorite pie is strawberry and rhubarb with a crumble top. Super easy and very, very good served still warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

May 23, 2007 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

that's hillarious!!! i just had some rhubarb sauce with my fish at a restaurant... and thought hmmmm must learn to make it... and this afternoon i walked by it at the store... and thought... hmm ... must learn to make it...

and NOW.... THANKS i will DEF make this...!!

May 23, 2007 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger naechstehaltestelle said...

Totally unrelated, but...my Scottish history teacher used to always say Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhubarb whenever one of us would complain. For the longest time I thought Rhubarb meant Shut up or Quit it.

May 24, 2007 at 3:14 PM  
Anonymous jessica said...

Umm, how do you stay slim??? I think rhubarb is terrifying looking!

May 24, 2007 at 3:44 PM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

GL - Growing up, we didn't get rhubarb, we got Fun Dips, sour sticks that we dipped in sugar. (Or was it sugar sticks we dipped in sour mix?) I'm sure those were far worse for me than oxalic acid!

Strawberry-rhubarb pie with crumble sounds heavenly. Please send along a recipe if you've got one!

Ale - Go for it! Impress Vito!

NHS - Supposedly, extras in movies would go around repeating "rhubarb" (I always thought it was "watermelon") so the word became slang for irrelevant chatter.

Jessica - I live to eat, and I bike to eat. Therefore, I live to bike? Anyway, it's very kind of you to call me slim, I wish I were!

May 24, 2007 at 8:41 PM  
Anonymous Caroline said...

I too have an unrational fear of rhubarb. You have inspired me... I am trying it!

May 25, 2007 at 5:02 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Too funny- M. just told me he bought a bunch of rhubarb and we were discussing what we will do with it today. I am leanding toward either a rhubarb crumble or a strawberry rhubarb pie but he mentioned he also likes the compote with vanilla ice cream. Maybe I'll post what I did with it later!

May 26, 2007 at 11:41 AM  
Blogger Un-Swiss Miss said...

Caroline - Hope you enjoy!

Michelle - That is very funny. The pie you made looks GREAT.

May 31, 2007 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger Kelsey said...

Strawberry-rhubarb crisp is also great.

October 25, 2008 at 12:45 PM  

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