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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.

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Kemp Minifie
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