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Kemp's Kitchen: Rhubarb Remix

“Here’s what I’d like you to test today,” said Zanne Stewart (then Zanne Zakroff), the brand-new executive food editor of Gourmet magazine, as she handed me two recipes. “The ingredients are waiting for you in the fridge over there.” by Kemp Minifie
Kemp's Kitchen: Rhubarb Remix

It was a late-November day in 1977, my first day of work at Gourmet, and I was simultaneously giddy with excitement and freaked out in disbelief that I’d actually landed this plum job in the test kitchen of America’s premier food-and-travel magazine. I hadn’t grown up in a “gourmet” household and, frankly, I didn’t really think of myself as a “gourmet cook.” I was just a recent college grad with an oh-so-useful major in art history, who’d fallen in love with cooking while making omelets for six months in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Off I’d gone to cooking school in Paris and when I returned, I’d landed work at a tiny food-centric public relations firm in New York City where, among other wacky tasks, I spent two days sinking my arms up to my shoulders in gigantic bags of popcorn, trying to coat the kernels with powdered green bell pepper flavor for a freebie handout at the Ninth Avenue Food Festival.

Jumping from popcorn to Gourmet was a big leap. My roommates and I speculated for days about the foods I’d be cooking in my new position—and the leftovers I might be able to bring home. Visions of chocolate gâteaux, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and the inevitable foie gras danced in our heads.

I looked at the recipes Zanne had handed me. Lamb kidney soup and rhubarb fool. Hmmm… Not quite what I’d expected. This was going to be a day of weird pink food.

I’d eaten veal kidneys in France and rather liked them, but I wasn’t so sure about lamb kidneys. I tackled the soup first and examined the little rose-colored organs. Thank God I’d paid attention in Paris when the French chef-instructor Michel cooked veal kidneys, I thought, as I halved the lamb parts, pulling off the membranes, before sautéing them. The next step was a bit of a throat-closer: Puree the kidneys. I did as directed without gagging, and then mixed the puree with sautéed onion and celery and a pint of milk. The soup was the color of liverwurst. I bravely sampled it for salt. Not bad, I thought, but I’ll pass on taking it home for dinner.

Next up, the rhubarb fool. I was working five months ahead on recipes for the March issue, when rhubarb would just be coming into season. These days rhubarb is practically available year-round—at least the pale-pink hothouse variety, if not the brawny green-and-red locally grown stalks from the farmers’ market—but this was the late ’70s. The only available rhubarb in the winter was frozen.

The rhubarb fool called for a sugar syrup, which ran as a separate recipe right below the fool. The syrup yielded twice the quantity I needed, but that wasn’t deemed a problem. “You can use it to sweeten tea,” volunteered Stewart. (One more jar that will sit in my fridge forever, I thought to myself.) I dutifully cooked the rhubarb down to a mush with the syrup, then added gelatin. Whipped cream and a beaten egg white followed—all done in separate bowls—along with some grenadine in case the rhubarb needed a little color boost. I spooned the fool, as directed, into wineglasses and stuck them in the fridge to let the gelatin set. Then I glanced at the sink. It was a jumble of pots and bowls. It’s got to be easier than this, I thought to myself.

I’ve cooked a lot of rhubarb since that day in 1977. I wait for the local variety to show up at the farmers’ market in the late spring and then I cook up pounds at a time so that the family participates in a seasonal gorge on it. Our favorite informal way to serve it at home is to dish up the rhubarb puree at the table and then pass a bowl of whipped cream so that everyone gets a chance to dollop piles of it on top themselves. For my daughters, rhubarb is merely a delivery vehicle for the cream.

Whenever I cook rhubarb, I flash back to my first day at Gourmet, though the exact specifics of the rhubarb fool recipe have long since faded. In a recent nostalgic moment, I got out the stepladder and pulled down my box of 1978 Gourmets. Sure enough, there was the recipe, still seeming far more complicated than it needed to be.

What irked me first was the sugar syrup you had to make before you could even start on the rhubarb. Not only does it add an extra pot to clean, it’s a wholly unnecessary step. All you need to do is put your chopped rhubarb in a pan with sugar and a small amount of water—just enough to get some simmering action going over medium heat. The rhubarb will soon give up its own liquid—and believe me, there’s plenty of it, more than enough to dissolve the sugar. No wonder the 1978 recipe needed gelatin: Thanks to the sugar syrup, the rhubarb was too soupy to be folded into whipped cream without becoming a soggy mess.

As much as I like gelled desserts such as panna cotta, I avoid dealing with gelatin at home if I can, especially if it involves folding whipped cream into a semi-gelled fruit puree. If you’re not careful, you end up with ropes of super-chewy unincorporated gelatin coursing through your finished dessert.

Then there is the matter of whipping a tiny amount of cream and a single egg white. Have you tried to whip 1/3 cup of cream? It’s almost impossible unless you whisk it by hand, and I’m too impatient for that, particularly with ultra-pasteurized cream, which takes forever to thicken. And if you think that’s tricky, try beating a single egg white. It’s possible, but the only way I can do it is to use a very deep narrow bowl and my trusty handheld eggbeater.

So, fired up now, I decided to redo, revise, remix, and streamline this rhubarb fool. Ironically, by doing this, I was also going back to the dish’s origins, because the fruit fool is an old British dessert consisting simply of a fruit puree mixed with whipped cream.

I started with a pound of chopped rhubarb and cooked it down with 2/3 cup sugar to a thick puree—it took 20 minutes. I added a little vanilla because I love how its creamy flavor takes the edge off the acidity of the rhubarb. I put the puree in the fridge, and when it was sufficiently cold, I whipped a whole cup of cream and folded it in. Nothing stopped my family and friends from devouring it, but the verdict was: Too much cream, not enough rhubarb. I nailed it on the second round, upping the rhubarb to 1½ pounds and keeping the cream to 1 cup. When incorporating the whipped cream, don’t overmix it. Let the pink swirls of rhubarb remain. When spooned into a wineglass, it looks elegantly nonchalant—because it is! No one needs to know it’s only four ingredients.

Kemp Minifie