Rhubarb. I have loved it for years. And why not? It’s a tart, refreshing, and completely extraordinary thing when handled properly.
Of course, it is also highly seasonal. It’s one of the first bits of produce to show up in markets when the ground warms up in the spring, it hangs around in the summertime, when the living is supposedly easy, but it has a predictable habit of disappearing when the weather gets rough. It’s a fair weather thing. And, though most commonly lumped together with fruits, it is, in fact a vegetable– a truth I’ve found very difficult to grasp over the past few years.
When you slow down long enough to really notice the word, when you break it down into its two syllables and sound it out, it just seems like a really bad idea. “Rue,” as a noun connotes sorrow. As a verb, it means to regret. And barb? It can mean any sharp protrusion that points backward, like a hook or an arrow. It is something that prevents easy extraction. When you put the two pieces of the word together, however, it evokes freshly baked pies and springtime. Or, of course, it can conjure up some sad, sorrowful thing that pulls you in and won’t let you go. Take your pick. I have been historically attracted to both, but that is one for my therapist. I can just see the silhouettes of the Electric Company’s Oscar-winning duo, Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno, sounding it all out for me. Rhu. Barb. Rhubarb. They make it sound like so much fun.
The Latin name for the plant, Rheum rhabarbarum, should give one pause. At its base is barbarum, which indicates that the plant was, for the Greeks and Romans at least, from some place other. In the case of the rhubarb plant, this place was the Volga river– an area at the time populated by what the “civilized” Mediterraneans considered barbarian: bearded and coarse, with a language totally incomprehensible to their own.
And Rheum? From the Latin rheuma, it means “a watery discharge from the mucous membranes, especially the eyes and nose.” Charming.
The Greek word bárbaros, by the way, refers to the sound of random, incomprehensible noises one hears when listening to a language one cannot understand. The sound they made to mimic this was “bar bar.” The terms “babble” and “blah blah,” may be derived from this. One usage of the word “rhubarb” certainly is– it is one of the words chosen by stage actors to chatter repeatedly in order to provide indecipherable background noise in crowd or party scenes.
Only the stalk of the rhubarb plant is edible. The green leaves of the plant– the part of the organism from which it derives its strength and energy– are toxic, containing the nephrotoxin oxalic acid. When eaten in quantity or over a long period of time, one may suffer kidney damage. The roots that give the plant its stability are rich in anthraquinones like emodin and rhein, which are natural laxatives and cathartics.
Well, I’ve had about enough catharsis, thank you very much. I no longer see rhubarb through the rosy-hued glasses that bare a remarkable resemblance to the color of the stalk itself. With the exception of the following recipe, I’m not giving rhubarb much thought anymore. Instead, I shall focus my energy and attention elsewhere. Like going to Paris for a week– a place where the only rue-ing I’ll be doing is wandering the streets of that city and the only barbs I will encounter are the bons mots flung by a couple of charming and very clever friends.
Now that’s the kind of rhubarb I can really get behind.
Rapaperikiisseli (Finnish Rhubarb Soup)
And why not Rapaperikiisseli? It is a word I do not understand and could never hope to pronounce. It’s all bar bar to me. I’ve simplified the dish somewhat, omitting the need for cornstarch. It is, in a real sense, rhubarb boiled down to its essence, with just a little help from its good friends Mr. Sugar, Señor Water, and a couple of spicy numbers from down the street. It requires little in the way of time and effort, and even less in terms of thought, which is pretty much what I should have been giving rhubarb all along.
Serves: 2 to 4, depending.
2 cups cold water
2 cups rhubarb, chopped and peeled (reserve the peel for use, please)
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick, whole
a pinch of ground clove
mint, if you like, for garnish (I am not one of those people who garnishes everything with mint. It just happens to work nicely in this particular case.
1. In a medium-sized saucepan equipped with a lid (for future use), place water and rhubarb peel. Bring to a simmer and cook the peel until the color has been leached out. Remove and discard peel.
2. Add to the now-pink water the sugar, chopped rhubarb, and cinnamon stick. Stir, bring to a simmer, and cover. Simmer until the rhubarb falls completely apart. In my experience, it will do this with some regularity over the span of a few years. In the case of this recipe, however, give it 15 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and let cool enough so that, when put in a blender, the top will not burst off and scald you with hot liquid.
3. When the rhubarb is blender-ready… ummm… blend. Continue to do so until it is of a smooth, even consistency. Set to chill in the refrigerator.
4. Serve chilled in appropriate serving bowls with bits of torn mint thrown over the top. Or add little fluffy clouds of whipped cream or a dollop of crème fraîche. Your choice. The rhubarb is yours to do with as you please.