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Originally published Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Taste

Rhubarb is gaining a new rep for its sweet-tart versatility

Once considered "an old people's crop," rhubarb is gaining new appreciation as an alternative to strictly sweet fruits and as a tangy addition to a variety of savory meat and fish dishes.

STRAWBERRY FIELDS abound around sleepy Sumner in Pierce County, but Ron Leslie devotes his time to a different crimson harvest.

"The berry business, I never had my heart in that," the third-generation farmer confesses. Instead, Leslie has more than 100 acres planted in rhubarb, a spring-summer carpet of crinkled green leaves and tart, tall stalks.

The crop is an esoteric one by national standards. Leslie's fields are a rare large-scale operation, accounting for a remarkable 7 percent of all farmed U.S. acreage, according to USDA figures. But a rhubarb renaissance is sprouting, as sharp flavors become more acceptable to American palates, and as home cooks develop more tolerance for an ingredient that demands a touch of heat-and-sugar cosseting.

In the process, little Sumner, population 9,085, is dusting off its old mantle as rhubarb royalty.

Because it shuns extreme heat and doesn't mind the rain, the plant is a natural for the region. And Sumner long ago claimed the title of "Rhubarb Pie Capital of the World," though no one is sure now why pie was spotlighted rather than the crop itself.

Sumner farmers founded the state rhubarb growers association, which is still based in the city, though its numbers have dwindled from more than 100 in prewar years to just six today.

Ron Leslie's fields were first planted in rhubarb by his grandfather, who emigrated from Scotland in 1919. In the early days, Leslie recalls, their rhubarb was a popular bright spot in produce sections after the barren winter, one of the first edible plants to mature as the weather warmed.

Once the age of flight began, though, out-of-season berries and stone fruits filled shelves year-round. Rhubarb was relegated to little more than a supporting role in pies, mixed with smugly popular strawberries.

"It's an old people's crop," the farmer says. For a while, maybe. Now it's drawing new appreciation for both its vegetable nature and its fruit-like qualities, in sweet rhubarb sauces and crumbles and fools, and as a savory complement to meats, fish and even salads.

At Cantinetta, chef Brian Cartenuto is rendering pancetta with rhubarb to sauce his duck pansotti. Canlis is using rhubarb in a gelee atop foie gras terrine. Dry Soda added it to its pantheon of ultrasophisticated flavors. It's poached on duck breast at Stumbling Goat Bistro. There are days on Twitter when it seems impossible to find a city resident who isn't mixing Greek yogurt with rhubarb sauce for an easy dessert. A national trade publication, Specialty Food Magazine, trendspotted it for 2009, writing that rhubarb appeals to a population "looking for flavors that are not cloyingly sweet."

While rhubarb doesn't quite qualify as a tourist attraction, visitors to Sumner will find low-key hints of its status: a logo modeled on old rhubarb-crate labels, a rhubarb recipe book available online (rhubarbpiecapital.com). At the Berryland Café, co-owner Lola Hansen bakes robust rhubarb pies every night or two, letting them set packed with chunks of fresh fruit, before serving them up the next day. The chef-owner of Sorci's Italian Café plays with rhubarb specials, such as a recent rhubarb-y twist on the traditional spinach-strawberry salad. At the Windmill Bistro, ladies who lunch are served elegant cream-topped bowls of rhubarb in pastry, and shoppers at the garden shop next door can pick up rootstock to plant the pink-tinged, delicate-flavored 'Victoria' variety.

On the Leslie farm, though, it's all about the land and the plants. Massive rhubarb crowns are coaxed into producing firm, 14-inch stalks attractive enough to rate an "extra-fancy" grade, then the leaves (which contain toxic levels of oxalic acid) are trimmed before it's boxed for market.

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The harvest is a different process for Leslie than it was decades back, when he helped his father on the farm. Rhubarb's day in the sun lasted just eight weeks then, over by June. But hothouses and freezing techniques front-loaded the season long ago. And now, added demand keeps the farmers picking until the plants are depleted from the August heat.

Leslie is near retirement age, but his rhubarb's run isn't over. His son, Nik, will succeed him and carry it on.

He gladly answered questions on the crop when asked — there's a lot of knowledge to pass on — but he came up blank on one, trying to figure out how long rhubarb might keep after it's picked. Two weeks, maybe?

"I'm not an authority. I don't think I ever ate any old rhubarb."

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Rhubarb Fool

Serves 4

For the rhubarb

1 orange, juiced

12 ounces rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, preferably superfine

For the whipped cream

2/3 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar, preferably confectioners

1. To prepare the rhubarb. Place the rhubarb in a saucepan with the orange juice and sugar. Slowly bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally and carefully with a wooden spoon, until pieces are tender but some still retain their shape. Cool, then transfer to the refrigerator.

2. To make the cream. Whip the cream in a separate bowl with the confectioners sugar until the mixture forms soft peaks.

3. To serve, mix the whipped cream and rhubarb, and scoop into a bowl. Alternately, layer the cream and the rhubarb in tall glasses.

— "The River Cottage Family Cookbook"

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