Real Rhubarb Returns

Thanks to hothouses and commercial growers, you can now find rhubarb in the market almost all year round. But real seasonal rhubarb is a different thing entirely. Field-grown rhubarb has firm, vibrant red stalks with green leaves. The flavor is more pronounced than the hothouse variety, which is typically a pale red to pink and is usually sold without leaves.

Field-grown rhubarb, appearing in markets from April through June, is perishable and quickly becomes limp if not used shortly after purchase. Choose firm, crisp stalks that are bright-red with fresh-looking green leaves. Avoid old, withered stalks by checking out the cut ends--if they are dry and crusty, forget it.

Refrigerate rhubarb, wrapped in plastic wrap, for no more than a few days. When preparing rhubarb, it is not necessary to peel it, but always discard the leaves.

Though rhubarb is classified botanically as a vegetable, it's generally used as a fruit. Because of its intensely tart taste, rhubarb requires a staggering amount of sugar to make a sweet dessert. But this very tartness makes it versatile for relishes and savory dishes as well as for desserts.

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Here's a quick, instant rhubarb sauce that can please even the most resistant rhubarb critic. Serve it spooned over ice cream, yogurt, puddings and cake.

MICROWAVE RHUBARB SAUCE WITH BERRIES 1/2 pound rhubarb, cut in 3/4-inch thick slices to equal about 2 cups 6 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 10 strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, hulled and cut in half 1/2 cup raspberries Vanilla frozen yogurt or ice cream, optional

Mix rhubarb, sugar and cinnamon in microwave-safe bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave on full power 2 minutes. Stir, return to microwave and cook until rhubarb is soft, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Stir in strawberries and raspberries. Serve warm over frozen yogurt. Can be prepared day ahead and refrigerated. Gently reheat for serving. May also be prepared without berries and frozen up to 3 months. Gently reheat and add berries for serving. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

10 calories; trace sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

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Rhubarb makes this chutney seem sweet and sour at the same time--a perfect accompaniment for beef, lamb, poultry and game.

RHUBARB CHUTNEY WITH RED ONION AND DRIED CRANBERRIES 1 teaspoon oil 1 small red onion, cut in 1/2-inch dice 1 medium clove garlic, minced 2/3 cup light-brown sugar, packed 1/4 cup orange juice 1/2 cup dried cranberries 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 3/4 pound rhubarb, cut in 1/2-inch dice to equal about 2 1/2 cups

Heat oil in 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add red onion and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until onion is tender, about 3 minutes.

Add brown sugar, orange juice, dried cranberries, dry mustard, ginger, allspice and cloves. Cook over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add rhubarb and continue to cook, stirring often, just until few pieces of rhubarb begin to fall apart, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Chill before serving. Can be refrigerated up to 1 month. Makes 2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 23 calories; 2 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

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Rhubarb performs the function of lemon in this piccata recipe. It's quick to make, an elegant spring main dish. Serve it with wild rice or buttered noodles.

CHICKEN PICCATA WITH RHUBARB AND LEEKS 2 boned, skinned chicken breast halves 2 tablespoons flour 1/4 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper 1/2 tablespoon butter 1/2 tablespoon oil Rhubarb-Leek Sauce 1 teaspoon minced parsley

Place chicken breasts between pieces of plastic wrap. Use meat pounder to flatten breasts into uniform thickness. Put flour, salt and pepper in small plastic food bag. Shake to mix. Shake each chicken breast in flour mixture until lightly coated.

Heat butter and oil in 8-inch non-stick skillet. When very hot, brown breasts on both sides until cooked all the way through, about 2 minutes per side. Place on warm dinner plates. Spoon warm rhubarb-leek sauce over breasts. Garnish with parsley. Makes 2 servings.

Each serving contains about: 365 calories; 822 mg sodium; 102 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

RHUBARB-LEEK SAUCE 1 tablespoon butter 1 medium leek, white part only, cut into thin slices 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup thinly sliced rhubarb 1/4 teaspoon sugar 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth 2 tablespoons Ruby Port 1 teaspoon drained capers

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons butter in 10-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, swirl butter to coat bottom of skillet. Add leek and sprinkle with salt. Cook until leek is slightly tender, about 2 minutes, stirring often. Add rhubarb, sugar, mustard, chicken broth and Port.

Bring to boil. Boil, uncovered, 2 minutes, until liquid is somewhat reduced and thickened. Stir in capers and remaining butter. Adjust seasonings to taste. Can be made ahead and gently reheated on stove top or in microwave oven.

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This cobbler combines rhubarb with two berries under a tender cinnamon biscuit. The extra step of cooking the rhubarb on the stove top before baking the cobbler is essential; I've tried the recipe without doing this and the juices did not thicken satisfactorily--they were far too runny. I like to serve this warm, with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt melting over the top.

JUICY DEEP-DISH RHUBARB COBBLER WITH BERRIES 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 1/3-inch slices to equal about 6 cups 1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca Sugar 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup unsalted butter, chilled, cut in 8 pieces 1/2 cup whipping cream 2 teaspoons grated orange zest 1 1/2 pints strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, hulled, cut in half if large 1/2 pint raspberries Frozen low-fat vanilla yogurt or ice cream, optional

Toss together rhubarb, tapioca and 1 1/4 cups sugar in bowl. Let stand 15 minutes. Transfer to large skillet and cook, stirring, over high heat until juices begin to thicken, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in food processor or mixing bowl. Work in butter with processor metal blade or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cream and process or mix just until dough clumps together. Press dough into firm clump on floured board. Knead dough, folding and pressing back onto itself, until smooth and cohesive, about 30 seconds.

Add orange zest, strawberries and raspberries to rhubarb mixture and stir. Transfer mixture to 10-cup souffle dish.

Roll out cobbler dough on heavily floured board to rough shape of souffle dish. Remove excess flour on dough with soft brush. Place dough on top of fruit and gently tuck edges down into fruit. Place dish on jelly roll pan to catch any juices.

Bake at 425 degrees until crust is lightly browned and fruit juices are bubbling, about 20 minutes. Serve warm with frozen yogurt. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about: 487 calories; 219 mg sodium; 48 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 85 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.95 grams fiber.

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