LENOX — Rhubarb, the humble harbinger of spring, will take center stage Saturday when the third annual Lenox Rhubarb Festival takes over Roche Reading Park at Lenox Library.
The festival promises rhubarb treats from pancakes to pies, along with a rhubarb chili contest, and recipe booklets and rhubarb plants for sale.
"It just came to me that rhubarb ought to be celebrated," festival founder and Lenox native Suzanne Pelton said. "You just don't see rhubarb anywhere. and it just seemed like such a good vegetable."
The event kicks off with an al fresco pancake breakfast from 8 to 10:30 a.m. in Lilac Park, next to the Church on the Hill Chapel, presented by the congregation, with pancakes drizzled with strawberry rhubarb sauce, alongside sausage, juice and coffee. Tickets are $5 adults, $3 children 10 and younger.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Library park, a dozen local bakers from Sweet Treats to the Wheatleigh will sell tempting rhubarb-themed creations including strawberry rhubarb pie, cupcakes and crisp; rhubarb turnovers, whoopie pies, shortcake, coffeecake, cookies and ice cream, all washed down with rhubarb juice and raspberry rhubarb soda.
Fresh rhubarb and cookbooks will also be on sale.
"Rhubarb is so loaded with nutrients, I think we should be eating it every day," Pelton said. "Some people eat it raw, they chop it up and put it in salads or make salsa."
The always popular Rhubarb Chili Contest runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the library park and shines the spotlight on Lenox restaurant chefs. Six participating venues include Cafe Lucia, Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort, Firefly New American Bistro, Haven Cafe and Bakery, Kripalu and The Olde Heritage Tavern.
"The chefs love it because they get to be really creative," Pelton said. "This year, one is making a sweet-and-sour chicken chili. We'll have recipes printed out so everybody who goes through the line will have them."
In years past, chefs have conjured up chili creations from smoked duck, ground beef, turkey and apricots.
"One had a vegetarian chili that was sensational and had Middle Eastern spices in it," Pelton recalled.
The public "buys" a spoon for $5, samples all the dishes (while supplies last), and votes for their favorite with their spoon.
Horticulturist Scott Harrington will be available to answer questions on growing rhubarb and offer plants for sale. According to Pelton, tending a rhubarb patch is easy.
"I got two plants, and now I have 20," she said. "It just spread, you don't have to do anything about it. It doesn't get eaten by anything. It starts showing its pretty pink and green leaves and pink stalks the beginning of May, and you can start harvesting the third week of May.
"Traditionally, you don't harvest after the middle of July because they say it's too sour then," Pelton added, "but I pick mine till the end of October. That's what's wonderful about rhubarb, it just sits there and waits patiently for you to pick it when you get inspired to make something."
First recorded in China some 5,000 years ago, rhubarb has long been valued for its medicinal and nutritive qualities. The iconic rosy red stalk topped with a large green wavy (and toxic) leaf is the best known form of the plant. But don't be fooled into thinking a green rhubarb stalk isn't yet ripe; though often snubbed by consumers as inferior, it is a distinct and delicious variety.
"There are about 30 different varieties of rhubarb," Pelton said, "and red and green are equally sweet."
Rhubarb has historically been paired with strawberry, most famously in pies, due to the synchronicity of their spring appearance and the synergy of their sweet and slightly sour tastes.
"If you add strawberries to your rhubarb dish, it makes an even pinker color, which is very pretty," Pelton said. "They're just a natural pair. And strawberries are sweeter than rhubarb, so you don't have to use as much sugar."
My own Polish grandmother created a simple, satisfying dessert by stewing rhubarb with water and sugar, letting it cool, then serving it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. She would have been familiar with the versatile vegetable (which indeed it is, despite being widely considered a fruit) in her native land, where it grows abundantly and is traditionally used in soups and refreshing drinks laced with honey.
The two recipes submitted by Pelton make use of tarts in very different ways: one is a traditional "tarte tatin" with rhubarb richly caramelized in sugar and butter, the other a savory, jammy concoction with onions and garlic topped with goat cheese and Brussels sprouts.
Savory Rhubarb-Onion Tart
Courtesy of Suzanne Pelton
3 cloves of garlic
5 stalks of rhubarb (about two cups chopped)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon thyme OR marjoram
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup vegetable stock, plus more as needed
8 Brussels sprouts
2-3 oz goat cheese
2 sheets of puff pastry dough, defrosted
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, rack in middle position.
Place puff pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet or silicone baking mat. Poke all over with fork to within an inch of edges. This prevents the dough from puffing with steam except around the edge, making a lovely border for your tart. Set aside.
Prep the vegetables: Cut onions in half, then in slices. Cut rhubarb in chunks. Slice garlic and Brussels sprouts thinly.
Sauté onions in a little oil for 3-4 minutes, then add the garlic, summer savory, mustard seeds, salt and pepper. Sauté 3-4 few minutes longer. Add the rhubarb, broth, honey and raisins, and continue cooking, adding more broth if needed, until raisins plump, rhubarb cooks down and onions soften. When you have the consistency of chunky jam, remove from heat and let cool.
Spread the cooled onion/rhubarb mixture over the pastry. Top with sliced Brussels sprouts. Then sprinkle the crumbled goat cheese over your filling.
Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, rotate your baking sheet, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and continue baking for another 15 minutes, until the tart is golden brown and puffy around the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Rhubarb Tarte Tatin
3 lbs of fresh rhubarb
5 tbsp. butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
5 1/2 oz unsalted butter (chilled and cubed)
1 egg yolk
1-2 tbsp water
Sift flour and salt into large bowl. Add the butter, rub with fingertips until forms pea sized bits.
Add egg and 1 tbsp of cold water. Using a pastry blender mix until dough just starts to come together, adding more water a bit at a time as needed. Press dough together and shape into a disk.
Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a least 30 minutes. Keep refrigerated until rhubarb mixture is cooked down and caramelized. Roll out pastry dough on lightly floured surface slightly larger than frying pan.
Cut rhubarb into 1-2 inch pieces. Put butter and sugar in a deep 10-inch frying pan with ovenproof handle. Heat until the butter and sugar melt together. Arrange rhubarb tightly on top, filling all gaps. Cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes, or until caramelized (lightly browned) and excess liquid has evaporated.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover rhubarb mixture with rolled out pastry dough. Press down around the edge to enclose completely. Bake 25-30 minutes until pastry is golden and cooked. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Cover frying pan with serving plate and carefully flip over. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipping cream.
If you go ...
What: Lenox Rhubarb Festival
When: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roche Reading Park, Lenox Library
Information: www.lenoxrhubarbfestival.com (413) 637-0035