Where I come from, small-town Illinois in the Chicago area, rhubarb will frequently be found growing wild. I remember specifically that my mother grew it in her little salad garden when we lived in Arlington Heights, adjacent to Mount Prospect and just outside of Chicago to the northwest. Here I discovered that rhubarb would give me a stomach ache if I nibbled on the stalks, even though it looked to me like red celery stalks.
After that it took me some years to warm up to it, as my mother kept making rhubarb pies and eventually my father's enthusiasm for its sweet-tart flavor gave me an example. Some people never move on from the taste of sweet-sweet, but if anything will help you to fine-tune your palate, it would be rhubarb, plums and citrus fruit.
I get rhubarb at two stores where I see it frequently, Sprouts and Safeway. I have bought it at my neighborhood Fry's Supermarket at Campbell and Irvington, and the checkout clerks ask me what it is sometimes. I'm glad to tell them; nothing would make me happier than to see rhubarb go more and mainstream.
I don't happen to be convenient to Tucson's Albertson's or Basha's supermarkets, but both of them have extensive produce sections and I'll bet they carry rhubarb as well. Basha's is also distinguishing itself by offering a health-food section which makes it very nice to shop there, as I do when I'm in the neighborhood of one.
The spring of 2013 has already arrived in southern Arizona, as the temperatures move into the seventies and the last of the winter's cold falls on us at night, letting up when the sun rises. Those who are eagerly anticipating spring produce will be finding it soon, beginning with rhubarb.
It does indeed look like red celery when it is trimmed of its huge, elephant-ear leaves. It is also fibrous like celery, and if you get large, dark-red stalks, slice them thin, on the bias, and you won't have to concern yourself with fibers.
The general formula for putting up fruit is an equal quantity of fruit to sugar, but unless you are making jam--rhubarb jam is terrific--a little less sugar will turn out a great sauce. You can call it a Rhubarb Compote and I saw it on the Internet over waffles. It is also indescribably captivating when served over ice cream as a simple sundae, and it will give your dinner guests a surprise if you share it with them.
For now, though, consider this: you may have either a muffin baking tin or even the little mini-muffin tin. If you do, you can make a wonder Rhubarb Tartlet.
Make it super-easy on yourself and get some prepared pie dough to make the tart cups, but don't cut it until you conduct a kitchen experiment. Get out your round cookie/biscuit cutters and make paper circles the same size by tracing and cutting them out. Press each circle of different sizes into your muffin or mini-muffin pans to determine the size of pastry round you need, and then use the pie crust to prepare the muffin tins with tart shells.
You are now ready to make the little Rhubarb Tartlets.
BASIC RHUBARB SAUCE
1 1/4 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and diced (1/4 inch), about 5 cups
1-1/2 cups sugar (light-brown sugar will work as well)
2 packages prepared pie crust
Combine rhubarb and 1 1/2 cups sugar in a medium saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cook until the rhubarb is tender and translucent. Boil the rhubarb in syrup over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.
Make Rhubarb Tartlet shells using muffin pan and cookie/biscuit cutters.
Place enough rhubarb compote sauce into each tart shell to fill it almost full (it won't rise). Bake the tartlets for 20 minutes and then check to see if the crust has browned a bit.
If you have ever suffered from a "soggy bottom," meaning pies with a crust that stays raw on the bottom, you can solve the pie problem two ways. The first is to use a glass pie pan, which will conduct more heat to the crust. The second is to place the pie in its pan on a baking sheet, which will do that same thing.
If these two methods have failed you, use the "blind bake" method of partially baking the pie shell before it is filled. You will need to weight it down so that it doesn't bubble, so first you prick the bottom all over with a fork and then you fill it either with dry beans (that cannot be reused, by the way) or pie weights that are designed for this purpose.
That will solve your pie's bottom crust problem, but the little tart shells will burn much more readily than a whole pie. Therefore you need to shorten the baking time. You could also blind-bake the tart shells if you wish.
If you are worried about a cold tart, just preheat the rhubarb compote before you place it in the shells; this will be necessary if you made the compote the day before and refrigerated it overnight. Other than that, you will find that you have an easy, different and elegant dessert on hand from a very homey ingredient.
Garnish the Rhubarb Tartlets with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.