by Ellen Ogden
Rhubarb stalks are attractive and add a tart flavor to strudels, sauces, and pies.
I first met rhubarb at my grandmother's table, served as a sweet-tart sauce over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In her elegant dining room the table was set with a burgundy satin tablecloth and cut crystal ice cream bowls. Dessert arrived on a silver tray. Like many things both culinary and cultivated, my grandmother had style.
Yet when the ice cream was served, I couldn't help thinking she might have to scold the cook. How could she confuse chocolate sauce with a weird red sauce with fibrous chunks? I poked at my dessert before scooping a tiny amount onto a silver spoon to taste. The contrast of sweet ice cream with the sharp sauce instantly reduced my fears and I ate it heartily.
After breakfast the next morning, we went together to the garden to see the plant that produced such enormous flavor. I watched her gently yank six stalks from the center of the plant. She handed them to me with instructions to snap off the leaves and discard them in the compost pile on the way back to the kitchen. A few hours before dinner I helped her slice the stalks into 1/2-inch sections. We added the rhubarb to a kettle with enough water to cover the stalks and added a dash of cinnamon and ginger and a few tablespoons of honey. Once it came to a boil, she stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon and turned the heat down to a simmer until the chunks fell apart into a fragrant sauce.
Rhubarb plants have large leaves that give it a tropical flare.
Many years later, rhubarb and I have become close friends and this time of year my grandmother always comes to mind. I have learned that a kitchen garden is not complete without rhubarb. One plant yields enough for a family of four and lasts for decades. Rhubarb thrives in cool weather. However, the brilliant rosy color of the stalks and the flamboyant texture of the giant leaves are more characteristic of tropical plants growing on a Caribbean island.
Rhubarb is a true harbinger of spring and is especially welcome this time of year as a vegetable that can be served as a strudel for breakfast or as my grandmother's tart sauce for dessert. If you can wait until strawberries are ready, the two can be combined into a sublime pie whose flavor is more than the sum of its parts. By midsummer, my rhubarb plant is usually still sending up enough stalks to make a batch of rhubarb chutney or jam for the pantry shelf or gift-giving later in the year.
Rhubarb stalks have a flavor that is earthy and sour. The distinct tartness makes them less tempting to eat raw, which is a good thing considering they are slightly toxic in large doses. Cooking reduces the deleterious effects. However, rhubarb leaves, cooked or raw, are poisonous and should be discarded into the compost pile.
Properly prepared rhubarb has a unique ability to balance sweeter foods with a shivering tartness. A little goes a long way and learning not to overindulge allows fans of rhubarb to embrace this fruit for all its culinary magnificence.
Harvest just a few stalks from first-year plants so they can build up energy reserves for future production.
Rhubarb is available in both green and red varieties, yet most of the rhubarb found in the farmer's market or backyard gardens this time of year is ruby red. When buying at the market, select stalks that are crisp like celery and will stand up on their own clumped in a bunch. If not using right away, wrap rhubarb in plastic and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator for no more than a few days. When ready to use, there is no need to peel the stalks. Simply slice into 1/2- to 1-inch chunks across the diagonal as if cutting across the grain of meat. This cuts the fibers short and they'll soften as they cook.
Since rhubarb freezes well, I harvest stalks throughout the summer and chop them into 1/2-inch pieces. Without any blanching or fancy preparation I pack them into plastic bags and drop them into the freezer. In winter I thaw them and make rhubarb strudel. My grandmother also taught me how to preserve rhubarb by canning it. This way I can enjoy simmered rhubarb over chocolate sauce on ice cream year round. But in truth, it doesn't even come close to the flavor of rhubarb fresh out of the ground in spring.
Ever since the advent of grocery stores and the extended availability of produce, rhubarb no longer holds the glory it once did for those habituated to eating fruits and vegetables from a root cellar or canning jars. But now that rhubarb is ready to harvest fresh, there is no better time to learn how to serve this classic garden treat.
Ellen Ecker Ogden is a garden writer and cookbook author based in Vermont. She periodically writes "Food for Thought" essays about gardening, food, and related subjects for the Edible Landscaping newsletter.