I've had my near-death experience with rhubarb.
When I was a boy, my father cleared a place for a garden behind our home outside Chicago. One day I came up behind him while he was spreading cow manure for the rhubarb bed and caught a tine from his pitchfork right between the eyes. There was a great rush to get hold of the doctor, some urgent concern about tetanus. I survived okay--I still have both eyes--but never forgot that rhubarb loves a meal of rich organic matter.
Many years later, I am watching the rhubarb I planted from bare roots last year develop into big, lush plants. You should wait at least until the second season before harvesting any of the stalks. Better to let all that photosynthesis feed the developing roots. By the third season, you can harvest all you like.
When I was growing up, we had so much rhubarb that it was boiled into a seemingly endless quantity of something we called "rhubarb sauce." It seemed that spring consisted entirely of this sweet mush, breakfast, lunch and dinner. While I am waiting for my own rhubarb plants to mature, I content myself with a few stalks from the local Whole Foods. And since I recently wrote on the subject for Martha Stewart, I decided to try one of her recipes for a recent meeting of gardening cohorts.
I don't consider myself a "tea" kind of guy. But these rhubarb tea cakes from the March issue of Martha Stewart Living looked awfully appealing. Martha's advice is to divide the batter between eight individual loaf pans, each lined with buttered parchment paper. That sounds so awfully Martha, but also a lot of work--especially when we didn't have all eight of the mini-loaf pans. So I made this in one standard-sized loaf pan, 5 inches by 9 inches.
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
8 ounces rhubarb cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 cups)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a mixer set at medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating and add vanilla. Reduce speed to low and mix in some flour, then some sour cream, then more flower and more sour cream alternately until both are completely incorporated. Stir in rhubarb.
Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan dusted with flour (or sprayed with Baker's Joy). Place in oven on a baking sheet and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place loaf pan on a wire rack to cool.
For the rhubarb syrup:
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
4 ounces rhubarb, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1 cup)
Use the tip of a paring knife to scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a small sauce pan. (Put the leftover pod in the canister of vanilla sugar you keep in your pantry.) Add water and sugar and bring to a simmer , stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove pan from heat and stir in rhubarb. Let cool, then remove rhubarb with a slotted spoon and reserve. Return pan to heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Let cool slightly, then return the rhubarb to the liquid. The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated.
To serve, cut the cake into thick slices (I then halved the slices to make them look more like tea cakes.) Spoon a generous helping of whipped cream onto each piece, then ladle on some syrup with the small pieces of rhubarb. Don't be shy with the syrup: Let it soak into the cake.
Serve with your favorite tea or coffee. A nice dessert wine such as Essensia, the orange-flavored Muscat, would also be a good choice.