Rhubarb is certainly a strange crop. It has a rosy red color that is beautiful to the eye, but its green leaves contain oxalic acid, which in large amounts is poisonous to humans. Botanically, it’s related to sorrel, making it so tart that it’s nearly unpalatable raw. We eat its leaf stalks, like those of celery, yet it is used in recipes more like a fruit. Even the name is curious: Rhubarb comes from the Greek rha barbaron, which basically means “that which is foreign”—most likely referring to the fact that it was brought from China, where it was used mainly for medicinal purposes.
Despite its odd characteristics, rhubarb found a home in European gardens and cuisine, mainly as a condiment and filling for desserts, and it has quickly gained popularity in the United States. It takes a little know-how to cook with rhubarb, but there’s a reason it has survived so long. When cooked with sugar, it has a delightful fruity-tart flavor that is unique.
Rhubarb, with its distinctive ruby-red color, is one of the harbingers of spring. Some growers force a winter crop of rhubarb in hoophouses, to be harvested from January until about March. This early rhubarb has a paler color and a subtler flavor than the main harvest, which has a more pronounced flavor and stalks that can be fibrous. Many recipes call for peeling the outer layers of strings, but that’s where most of the flavor is. I tend to leave it on and don’t really mind the slightly stringier texture of the mature rhubarb stalks.
I am a fan of showcasing the rhubarb flavor on its own. A dense, rich cake like my recipe for German Kuchen is a perfect platform for rhubarb; its pop of intense flavor contrasts perfectly with the sweet, musky peaches. The rhubarb is allowed to bake in chunks, preserving the bright flavor and the soft yet stringy texture, which I find addictive.
It’s a shame to think of rhubarb only as a dessert ingredient. That tartness is equally delicious as a pickle to accompany rich, flavorful meats like lamb and pork. The salt and sugar that go into making this pickle tame the rhubarb just enough to be palatable but don’t mute the intensity. When cooked for long periods, rhubarb will disintegrate into a porridgelike texture, but here, the gentle pickling technique gives rhubarb slices a crunch that is a lovely complement to buttery meat.
Lest you think rhubarb’s versatility ends with food, check out this drink that combines rhubarb with the aroma of mint for a refreshing beverage that screams spring. It is equally delicious mixed with soda, but adding a little gin to it makes it a perfect evening libation early on a cool spring evening. Rhubarb has proven to be so much more than just an ingredient for desserts and jams. I am constantly experimenting with more delicious savory recipes. Go find a few stalks of rhubarb and get adventurous in your own kitchen.
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Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2014.
Photo: (cc) H. Michael Miley/flickr