Of all the enthusiasms of spring - playing baseball, frolicking in the woods and throwing caps in the air at graduation - the arrival of rhubarb ranks right up there in seasonal excitement for me.
I am not alone. Rhubarb has inspired poets - OK, poetic comedians. John Cleese, for instance, has penned philosophic lines in praise of rhubarb.
"The principles of modern philosophy were postulated by Descartes," Cleese wrote. "Discarding everything he wasn't certain of, he said, 'I think therefore I am a rhubarb tart.' "
Regular listeners of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion know the psychic cleansing properties of rhubarb. As host Garrison Keillor reminds us, nothing gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of your mouth like a piece of rhubarb pie.
Rhubarb, like much of life, is full of contradictions. It is a vegetable, yet it often shows up on the dessert course. It looks somewhat like celery, a mild-mannered edible, but its leaves are poisonous, containing large doses of oxalic acid. This acid, according to the Rhubarb Compendium Web site, reduces iron compounds, and is therefore used in metal polishes and stain removers.
Even rhubarb's most ardent fans, including me, can't stand it solo. Like a starlet, rhubarb rarely appears alone in public. It is found in the company of strawberries; another frequent, if not constant, companion is sugar.
Still, every spring, I stalk rhubarb, prowling the various stands at various farmers' markets, hunting for its reddish-green petioles.
When I find it, as I did at a recent Sunday morning farmers' market in downtown Baltimore, I lose control, snapping it up like a bargain hunter at a shoe sale. The other day, mesmerized by its glow, I grabbed not a mere stalk or two, but close to 2 pounds.
The gawky stalks protruded from my shopping bag, drawing stares from fellow market-goers. Inside the bag, the stalks rubbed up against two quarts of local strawberries, grown in Middle River.
Back home my wife claimed some, but not all, of the rhubarb. She wanted two cups, about three to four stalks, for the strawberry-rhubarb pie she would be making for supper. But that left me with more than enough, about 1 1/2 pounds of the stalks.
Quickly I went to work, looking for ways to dispose of the remaining "errors of enthusiasm." One treatment that looked promising called for making soup with the stalks. It, of course, also required strawberries, but the mixture of these two, plus some orange juice, sugar and sour cream, seemed easy.
The other treatment, a simple compote, was conventional, yet it appealed to my sense of nostalgia. My mother used to make this dish. She also used to make stewed rhubarb, cooking the stalks with an excessive amount of sugar. The compote, which used only 1/2 cup of sugar, I could handle, but stewed rhubarb was a bridge too far into my past.
Both the soup and the compote called for large amounts of chopping. This task fit in well with another of my enthusiasms, watching televised sports. As I chopped the rhubarb, I switched the kitchen television back and forth between an Orioles game and the National Basketball Association playoffs.
The chopping was therapeutic. As the Orioles bullpen blew a 3-0 lead, I took my frustrations out on the cutting board. As the San Antonio Spurs beat up the Utah Jazz, I chopped even harder. While I was in a dicing mood, I also chopped the rhubarb my wife needed for the pie.
The rhubarb for the soup was steamed in a microwave oven. Once it was tender, it went along with some strawberries, the orange juice, sugar and the sour cream into a food processor. Soon it was "pulsed" into pink soup.
At first, the soup did not have much flavor. But after it spent about an hour chilling in the fridge, the strawberry and rhubarb notes came out. It was a tangy, satisfying first course with a texture similar to a strawberry smoothie.
The flavor of the compote was a surprise, a pleasant one. It looked gooey, but its savory rhubarb notes proved to be an excellent topping for vanilla ice cream, provided you like the notion of mixing sweet and sour. The pie was terrific, an ideal mixture of sweet berries and savory rhubarb, with a flaky shortening crust.
Rhubarb does not strike the sweetest notes, but a little springtime acid is good for the soul.
3 stalks rhubarb cut into 1 1/2 -inch chunks (about 2 cups)
1 pint (about 2 cups) fresh strawberries, rinsed, drained and sliced or frozen berries thawed with juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
5 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup light sour cream
Put rhubarb in microwave-safe dish and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 5 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly.
Transfer the rhubarb to a food processor and add the strawberries, orange juice, sugar and sour cream. Process until smooth. Chill and serve.
From "The Berry Bible" by Janie Hibler
Per serving: 145 calories, 2 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 28 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 24 milligrams sodium
Poached Rhubarb Compote
Makes 3 servings
4 cups diced rhubarb (about 6 stalks)
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
Combine ingredients in a medium heavy saucepan. Let stand at room temperature until rhubarb exudes some juice, at least 15 minutes. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until the rhubarb is tender and the mixture thickened, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool without stirring. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
Delicious with pork or duck, or spooned over vanilla ice cream. It also can be served as a dessert by increasing the sugar and adding a dollop of creme fraiche.
From "Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition" by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker
Per serving: 99 calories, 1 gram protein, trace fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium