Sweet or savory? Rhubarb offers endless possibilities

Rhubarb is featured, along with kale, in this confetti salad.
Rhubarb is featured, along with kale, in this confetti salad. Tom Wallace/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

I should have known better. My cousin's seemingly casual invitation was too intent on success, the gleam in her eye a bit too bright. "Take a bite," she said, holding out the stalk of rhubarb.

She spoke as if she were postponing her own pleasure, as if her bite of the scarlet stalk could wait if it meant her own dear young cousin could be happy. The rhubarb looked tasty. The pale green stalk looked like celery, but better, with brilliant red striations that caught the sunlight. The bottom knob of the stalk, where it had been pulled from the plant with a firm tug, appeared as polished as marble.

This knob was pink, as pink as the hollyhocks against my Grandma Torkelson's house. It was a shade of pink that, yet today, makes me smile. But it was the other end, where the great leaf had been lopped off by my beguiling cousin, that revealed the stalk's pale green interior. "Take a bite," she said again.

I suspect that we were not unobserved - that the grownups were looking out from the kitchen at the ancient drama being enacted. For surely, generation upon generation has tempted its younger members with the suggestion that biting into a stalk of rhubarb is a delight. I mean, my cousin wasn't that original. Nor was I when, in later summers, I would extend a stalk of rhubarb toward some unsuspecting cousin, friend, neighbor kid - whoever had not experienced the stop-action surprise of a bite.

To a child's fairly untested taste buds, rhubarb is a shock. The initial crunch is quickly replaced by the sensation of every pore in your mouth constricting in the face not so much of a taste that is sour - although your brain is screaming "Sour!" - as in the realization that spitting out the rhubarb risks releasing even more of its barbarity and that, while ridding yourself of this morsel now is more important than anything you've ever done, the specter of tasting more rhubarb, even on its way out, is akin to realizing that someone's nails are only halfway down the blackboard.

In short, this drama is great good fun for the profferers of rhubarb and an unforgettable experience for those who, against all of their instincts, finally take a bite.

The good news is that we know now that kids' taste buds are especially sensitive to bitter or sour flavors and that maturity brings the joy of realizing that rhubarb is one of the great delights of horticulture.

While we tend to think of it as a fruit, rhubarb actually is a vegetable, which helps move our brains in the direction of using it in more savory dishes, such as a Yorkshire-style pudding side dish, or in a kale salad. Nor is it necessary that rhubarb desserts rely on strawberries. Trust me. It's far more interesting to pair its tart flavor with tropical mangoes, chewy figs, fresh raspberries or ripe bananas.

CONFETTI SALAD OF KALE AND RHUBARB

The liquid from the pickled rhubarb helps make the vinaigrette. Prepare the rhubarb at least three hours before serving. From "Rhubarb Renaissance," by Kim Ode (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95). Serves 6.

Pickled rhubarb:

1 cup rhubarb, cut in 1/4-in. pieces

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. mustard seeds

Salad:

1 bunch (12 to 15 leaves) lacinato kale

3 tbsp. pickling liquid from rhubarb

3 tbsp. walnut oil

Hefty pinch salt

Several grinds pepper

4 oz. aged Gouda, cut in fat matchsticks

(about 1 c.)

1 tbsp. butter

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs, preferably

sourdough

1/2 cup candied walnuts (see below), roughly chopped

To make pickled rhubarb: Place rhubarb in a shallow heat-proof bowl. In a small saucepan, combine sugar, vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and mustard seeds, and bring to a boil; cook until sugar dissolves. Pour mixture over the rhubarb and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours before using. The pickles' flavor improves if refrigerated overnight. Any leftover pickling liquid can be refrigerated for future use.

To make salad: Remove center rib from kale leaves, stack several pieces, then slice crosswise into a fine julienne. You should end up with about 5 cups. Rinse kale and pat dry between paper towels or use a salad spinner.

Whisk together pickling liquid and walnut oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss kale with dressing, then gently fold in the cheese and drained rhubarb. Place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes so the kale softens a bit; it can chill for up to 3 hours.

Heat butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, then add bread crumbs, stirring to coat. Cook, stirring, until crumbs are golden and crisp. Set aside.

Before serving, toss salad again, add bread crumbs and walnuts, and toss once more.

To make candied walnuts: Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet and set aside. Combine 1/4 cup water and 1/2 cup packed brown sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add 1 cup walnut halves and continue to stir for about 5 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken. Pour out onto parchment paper, separating walnuts with a fork. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cool completely. Store in airtight container at room temperature for up to a month.

SALTED CARAMEL RHUBAPPLE PIE

My daughter, Mimi, came up with the idea for this pie, thinking to blend one of her favorite flavor combinations with my need for a new rhubarb recipe. She was spot-on. A bit of salt in the caramel is a final touch. From "Rhubarb Renaissance" by Kim Ode (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 120 pages, $16.95). Serves 6 to 8.

Pastry for single-crust pie

1/3 cup walnut pieces

6 Granny Smith apples (about 2 1/4 pounds), peeled, cored and thickly sliced

1 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tbsp. unsalted butter

1/2 cup honey

1 cup packed brown sugar, divided

2 cups rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup instant tapioca

1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

1/2 cup flour

4 tbsp. cold butter, cut in small cubes

Line a pie plate with crust and place in refrigerator while you prepare the filling. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in oven about 5 minutes, until there's a warm, nutty aroma. Cool, then chop coarsely and set aside.

Toss apple slices with lemon juice and cinnamon. Set aside.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter with honey and 1/2 cup brown sugar in a large heavy saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a rolling boil. Add apples, stirring to coat them with caramel. Reduce heat and cook uncovered no more than 5 minutes. Do not overcook them to mushiness.

Place rhubarb in a bowl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the hot apples into the bowl with the rhubarb. Add tapioca and stir to combine. Let sit for 15 minutes. In the meantime, add salt to the caramel remaining in the pan and cook, stirring often, a few minutes more to reduce it to a thick syrup. Do not let it scorch. Remove from heat and set aside.

Combine streusel ingredients (flour, remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar and 4 tablespoons cold butter), pinching the butter with your fingers until it's evenly distributed. Stir in the toasted walnuts.

Scrape the apple-rhubarb mixture into the chilled pie shell and drizzle with 3 tablespoons caramel. Spread streusel mixture over pie and bake for 30 minutes. Let cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes.

Just before serving, drizzle the remaining caramel (reheating if necessary) over the pie.

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