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RHUBARB FOOL. WHY AREN’T YOU MAKING THIS?

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We don’t actually know why it’s called a fool. Some bad translation of French, maybe, or an obscure joke, or a local word that got passed along some 400+ years ago. What it is: a dessert that combines stewed fruit with custard or whipped cream. British food writers Nigella Lawson, Jane Garmey,  Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, et al include recipes for it in their cookbooks, but it doesn’t seem to have crossed The Big Pond very far. Which is too bad, because it’s sublimely easy to make and very easy to eat.

The first versions were apparently made around the 16th century with gooseberries, little sharply-sour green berries that are very difficult to find where I live except (occasionally) canned. Rhubarb is likewise sour and makes a good substitute. So do all kinds of berries and soft summer fruits like plums and apricots. The method is the same: slowly cook the fruit with sugar, then mash or puree it. Let cool, then mix with an indecent amount of whipped cream or custard.

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I won’t say this is health food, but some things are worth a sharp deviation from steamed broccoli and chicken breasts. I adapted this from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer cookbook.

About rhubarb: it’s usually rather sandy so a good wash is in order. The leaves and roots are poisonous so cut those off and discard, as well as any grungy spots.

RHUBARB FOOL

  • 3 pounds really red fresh rhubarb
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups whipping (heavy, double) cream
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • powdered (confectioner’s) sugar to taste

Wash and trim the rhubarb as described above, then chop it into pieces about 2″ long and put in a baking dish. Mix the 1 1/2 cups sugar with it, cover tightly with foil, and bake at 350 for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the rhubarb is completely squashy soft.

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Drain the juice off the rhubarb and put it in a small pot – there will be about 1 1/2 to 2 cups. Put it over low heat (watch it because it can boil over when your back is turned and oh God what a sticky mess that would make) and reduce by about half. Pour into a jar, let cool, and put in the refrigerator. (Nigella said to not put it in the fridge for fear the color would change, but as it was about 4893458 degrees here and I don’t have air conditioning, I decided to risk it rather than have fermented rhubarb juice. No loss of color occurred. Your choice.)

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Puree the rhubarb, either in a food processor, blender, potato ricer, or just mash holy hell out of it with a potato masher.

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Cover and also put in the fridge to cool thoroughly.  You can – you need to, actually – do all this a day or two ahead of time.

When ready to make the fool:

Whip the cream until quite thick and not at all runny. Tilt the bowl – if the whipped cream slides to one side, it isn’t ready yet. ( Hint: whipping cream is quicker  if you put the bowl and beaters in the freezer for a while before starting.)  Add the 2 teaspoons vanilla and sweeten the cream to taste with the powdered sugar, remembering that the stewed rhubarb is rather tart.

Break up the cold rhubarb with a fork, then fold it into the whipped cream. Don’t try to completely blend it in – you want it more like zingy tart veins or swirls.

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If you like, transfer the rhubarb fool to a pretty clear glass bowl or a bowl in contrasting color, like green or blue.

Serve with the chilled rhubarb juice on the side for diners to pour over as they wish. Some simple cookies go nicely alongside. This recipe serves about 12 people depending on greediness, and leftovers will keep a day or two in the fridge. Leftover rhubarb juice can be mixed with white wine or champagne for a summery wine cocktail.

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ALASKA RHUBARB-ONION RELISH

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My mother always bought Sunset Magazine back when it was a truly regional magazine and not the generic corporate mess it’s become now. (Bitter much? Not me.) I still own a number of Sunset Magazines and cookbooks from their glory days. I was thumbing through Sunset Cook Book of Favorite Recipes (1978, 16th printing, badly stained and falling apart but  I won’t buy a replacement because I’m afraid the editors might have decided to “improve” it) when I came across this old recipe. When I was a kid I thought this was sounded weird and as disgusting as something could sound, but I was a kid and totally brainless.

After finding similar-but-not identical recipes online, I made this somewhat enhanced version a couple of weeks ago and let it age. Yesterday we had a ham for Easter and I served this alongside. It was great with the ham. It would be wonderful with turkey, pork, duck, lamb, or anything gamey like venison. It tastes similar to mincemeat, somewhat savory yet sweet with brown sugar. Make it now while rhubarb is in the market. It’s super-simple. I saw other recipes that  increased the cayenne to a teaspoon, cut the brown sugar in half, added garlic, pickling spices, and so on. This would lend itself to any number of variations.

ALASKA RHUBARB-ONION RELISH

  • 4 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 4 cups chopped white or yellow onions
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 1 scant tablespoon salt
  • 4 cups brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon each cloves, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and celery salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Combine all ingredients in a large pan.

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Cook slowly over medium heat.

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It will turn a vile and unappetizing brown but smell heavenly. Keep cooking and stirring occasionally until it gets fairly thickened (like warm jam).

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Pour into sterilized canning jars and seal. (This entry discusses the process of sterilizing jars and basic canning of high-acid foods.) The recipe says it makes 8 cups, but I got about 6 cups.

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