The first time I tasted rhubarb, I hated it. I can’t remember exactly why. The dish was a Rhubarb Brown Betty. I can’t remember the flavor well enough to be sure why I disliked it so much – it’s entirely possible it was just the unfamiliarity of it. Or maybe it was really badly made.
In any case, I avoided rhubarb for years. It’s not hard to do. Rhubarb makes an appearance for a few weeks each spring, and then it’s gone. Out of sight, out of mind. But my sweetie loves rhubarb, and one day a few years ago I was enticed by the gorgeous scarlet filling of his slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie to try a bite, and I was stunned. It was so much better than the cherry pie I had chosen! Admitting that I was wrong, I shamelessly begged several more bites. And it became clear that I needed to make up for lost time.
In my defense, rhubarb is a pretty weird ingredient. While there are plenty of fruits that we treat as vegetables, we rarely stretch those categories the other way around. Rhubarb’s big, ruffled leaves are toxic from an excess of oxalic acid, so those are discarded; what you’ll find in stores and markets – when you’re lucky enough to find it at all – are denuded stalks that look like ruby-red celery. The stalks are very sour.
Rhubarb, however, has the good grace to be in season at the same time as its soulmate, the strawberry. Sweet and juicy, strawberries partner beautifully with rhubarb, and in fact you see them together much more often than you see rhubarb alone. Usually I’m not a fan of cooked strawberries and would much rather have them raw. When mixed with rhubarb, though, it’s a different story; the juices and textures mingle, transformed by the oven’s heat into what seems a whole new fruit.
I recently bought a few stalks of rhubarb from La Montanita Co-op to go with a box of strawberries from my CSA box. While I was surfing around, trying to decide what exactly to do with them, I came across an idea I hadn’t seen before: a strawberry-rhubarb crisp that added a little orange zest and juice to the time-honored duo. Since I had an orange on the counter that really need using, I decided to give it a go.
The crisp was simple to make, as crisps generally are. Rhubarb is a snap to prepare; all you really need to do is slice it like celery. If you feel like it, you can peel off the outside – and any stringiness that might be present in more mature stalks – by gripping the skin between your thumb and the flat of a knife and pulling it away from the stalk. I did this in a half-hearted fashion. The process was unnecessary, though it did make some pretty red ribbons.
Though many crisp recipes call for cutting the butter in as you would for biscuit dough, I just melt it and stir it in.
The resulting crisp was beautiful, its crimson filling topped with golden streusel. But the real pleasure came when I took a bite. The orange transformed the classic strawberry-rhubarb into a whole new flavor, rounded and bright, at once exotic and familiar. It reminded me of cherries, or maybe mixed berry pie. It’s not easy to describe, so you’ll just have to trust me: You want to taste this.
Orange-Scented Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp
Serves: 4-6 Time: 60 to 70 minutes Hands-on: 20 minutes
3 medium stalks rhubarb
A pint of strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest
1.5 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup flour, all-purpose or white whole wheat
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup quick (not instant) oats
5 tablespoons butter, melted
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice the rhubarb into 1/2-inch pieces. Hull and slice the strawberries. You should have about 1.5 cups of each.
Place the rhubarb and strawberries in a large bowl. Add the sugar, orange zest, and cornstarch; toss. Pour in the orange juice and stir until everything is moist, then tumble into an 8- or 9-inch square pan prepared with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, brown sugar, salt, and oats. Pour in the butter and stir until everything is moist and well combined. Spread evenly over the fruit mixture.
Place the pan in the hot oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the fruit filling is bubbling and the topping is golden and browned on the edges. Let cool 10 minutes or so before serving. This is fantastic with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!