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Seeing Red

Don’t risk sleeping in on a Saturday this month, for arriving late at the farmers’ market might cause you to miss the debut of one of spring’s edible blessings.

The market is coming into full bloom, beginning with truckloads of cool-weather crops like locally-grown asparagus, tender artichokes, fava beans, celery, peas-in-the-pod, and super-sweet sugar snap peas. Fragrant strawberries proliferate, followed closely by juicy little cherries. But don’t stop there. Look closely and you’ll also find a lesser heralded shade of red—one that always triggers childhood memories for me.

My father was the gardener in our family, and maintained a good-sized patch of rhubarb in the backyard. As kids we considered this oddly-named plant very old-fashioned. While modern American moms threw together a Tunnel of Fudge Cake or some other gooey concoction, our Irish mother would bake a rhubarb pie. From scratch. You can only imagine our embarrassment.

By some cosmic twist of fate I ended up with a man who also happened to love rhubarb, so every spring I would dream up new ways to serve it. Rhubarb in the morning. Rhubarb in the evening. Rhubarb at suppertime.ThinkstockPhotos-177087863-1

I once made the following recipe for a friend’s annual potluck, and the fresh-outta-the-oven aroma wafting from the trunk kept us salivating all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge.

When The Cookbook Author arrived at the party, friends excitedly asked what I brought for dessert. Most could barely conceal their disappointment when I answered, “Rhubarb Crisp.”

After a leisurely lunch—and fittingly fortified by several glasses of wine—each of the biggest skeptics politely sampled a tiny spoonful of the crisp—paired with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. And then I watched them return to the buffet for more…this time omitting the ice cream. And then suddenly the crisp was all gone, and the host was good-naturedly complaining there wouldn’t be any leftover for his breakfast the next morning. This was followed by plenty of comments from incredulous guests saying things like, “I guess I do like rhubarb…” and, of course, requests for the recipe.

Instead of a more traditional oatmeal crumb topping, this version blankets sweet-tart rhubarb with a buttery-rich, almost cookie-like layer made all the better with the crunch of California walnuts and a hit of ground cinnamon.

The moral of the story is to keep an open mind. Cherries and berries are not the only way in which spring casts its rosy glow on our lives. If you can read this you are no longer 3 years old; so no matter how icky the idea of something may sound to you, trust Mother Nature. She only deals in the good stuff.

Rhubarb Revelations
-The thick, celery-like stalks of rhubarb can reach up to 2 feet long. The leaves of the plant must be discarded before cooking, as they contain oxalic acid and are therefore toxic. (Relax. For this very reason, rhubarb is never sold with the leaves attached. I just threw in this warning for any home gardeners out there.)

-A good source of fiber and Vitamin A, flavorful field-grown rhubarb has cherry-red stalks and green leaves. Its peak season is April through June.

-Hothouse-grown rhubarb, available year-round in many supermarkets, has a milder flavor, yellow-green leaves, and pinkish stalks that cook up to a not-so-appetizing gray…which is why many recipes suggest combining it with strawberries or a few drops of red food coloring.

-Choose crisp, brightly colored stalks with fresh-looking stems. To store, refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 3 days. Buying rhubarb at the farmers’ market ensures freshness…making no competition for the lonely stalks of limp, dry, or bruised rhubarb that languish in supermarket produce aisles.

-Rhubarb has undergone some gender re-assignment over the years: Although considered a fruit, botanically it’s really a vegetable.

-Known as “pie plant” in some areas, rhubarb is always combined with a fair amount of sweetener to tame its natural tartness.

RHUBARB CRISP

For the Cinnamon-Walnut Topping
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped California-grown walnuts
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup (packed) dark or light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake, stirring once or twice, until lightly browned and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool.
2. Using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon, mix together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until creamy and well blended.
3. In medium bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Whisk gently to blend. Gradually beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture until just blended. Stir in the walnuts.
4. Loosely pack the mixture into a bowl or a heavy-duty plastic food storage bag. Freeze until very firm, at least 4 hours or as long as 1 month.

For the Rhubarb Filling
3 pounds fresh California-grown rhubarb
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Dash of salt
Finely grated zest of 1 California-grown orange
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2 1/2- to 3-quart shallow baking dish. Rinse the rhubarb stalks under cold running water and discard any leaves. Cut stalks crosswise into pieces about 3/4-inch thick. (You’ll have 9 to 10 cups.)
2. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, flour, salt, and orange zest. Add the orange juice and rhubarb, tossing to coat with the sugar mixture. Scrape into the prepared baking dish.
3. Use a large knife to chop the frozen Cinnamon-Walnut Topping; then scatter the chunks and bits over the fruit. Bake until the topping is golden and the rhubarb is tender and bubbly-hot, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Serve slightly warm, at room temperature, or lightly chilled. Serves 10 to 12.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well