It’s a fruit! It’s a vegetable! It’s a fruit! It’s…it’s…rhubarb! Actually, it is a vegetable. However, in 1947, a New York court classed rhubarb as a fruit for tax purposes since that was how it was used most in the United States. Rhubarb is also known as “Pie Plant” in parts of the US for the obvious reason that it finds its way into pies, along with cobblers and crumbles, probably more than anything else. After that, you see it often in jams and compotes, either to be enjoyed as you would applesauce, or as a topping.
Rhubarb’s usual accomplices are strawberries. Like cuff and link, you always seem to see them one right after the other on menus and in recipes. The sweet strawberries, which share seasonality with rhubarb, act as a foil for the tartness of rhubarb, and the bright floral notes of strawberries complement the earthy notes.
When cooking with rhubarb, think in terms like tart, citric, acidic, and bright. Rhubarb fits into a dish the same way as sour cherries, berries, sorrel, tomatillos, or pomegranate do. It is used to good effect with rich or fatty foods such as duck, Foie gras, pork, or game. The tartness is perfect for cutting through and setting off the richness of some dishes. It is also brilliant as a means of perking up milder dishes composed of things like chicken or fish such as halibut that have milder flavors.
For rhubarb, different cooking methods rhubarb yield different results. Longer cooking in a liquid will give you a rich and melting texture that is good for sauces or toppings. If you blanch rhubarb slices (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick) for a mere 10 to 30 seconds, you can use it intact as part of a sauce or side dish with gentle cooking. Sprinkle with sugar and caramelize in butter or grapeseed oil on high heat for just a few seconds more, and mix with a reduction or syrup of rhubarb for a garnish for scallops or duck. Alice Waters proclaimed roasting it will keep the stalks intact and juicy without them breaking down into something “slimy.”
Some recipes say to peel rhubarb; some say not to. My experience with sautéed rhubarb is that when I peel it, the pieces stay intact, whereas when I do not peel it, the peel pulls away after cooking and damages the slices due to its different density. The peel can be used for garnishes by drying them in the oven or use them to color and flavor a simple syrup. For pies, I would not bother peeling. Sautéing sliced rhubarb and then running it through a strainer is an excellent way to make a sauce for a savory dish while keeping the texture light. Add just enough liquid and butter to yield a sauce-like texture and you are good to go.
When it comes to flavors to pair with rhubarb, reach for orange juice, pomegranate syrup, and strawberries. For spicing, look to “pie spices” — ginger, cinnamon, allspice, star anise, cloves, vanilla, and cardamom will all work. For a savory sauce, lemon thyme, thyme, summer savory, and shallots all work, as would lemon grass and fresh ginger or galangal. Depending on the color of the rhubarb and method of preparation, anticipate a dish that runs from dark creamy tinged with pink, to deep reds.
When selecting rhubarb, look for straight (or slightly bowed) stalks that are quite firm, without holes or blemish, and try to find them with moist cuts on the ends. If the cuts are dry and desiccated, there is a good chance your rhubarb will lack flavor and moisture. Look for rhubarb with plenty of color, as the stalks that are mostly green seem to lack any real flavor.
Rhubarb root was once highly valued and used as a medicine, worth as much as diamonds, silks, and saffron. Rhubarb stalks began to be regularly used as food once sugar became accessible and affordable to everyone around the 17th century.
Never, ever eat rhubarb leaves. The leaves contain a toxic amount of oxalic acid. The stalks contain a fair amount, which is where the tartness comes from, so be sure to cook them in a non-reactive cooking vessel, and wash out the pots and knives you use soon after.
By the way, having recently tasted a rhubarb bitters (made from the root), I am now convinced that rhubarb is the base for Dr. Pepper, not prunes, as I was led to believe while growing up. As most sodas started life as “tonics,” it makes more sense that rhubarb is the base.
You can find fresh rhubarb at Mello-Dy Ranch almost year-round, as well Webb’s Organics, and T & L Coke Farms.
RECIPES: Onion Rhubarb Confit, Rhubarb Crumble, Geri Shelly’s Rhubarb Pie, Ginger Honey Rhubarb Jam, Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler, Strawberry Rhubarb Limeade, Virginia’s Prize Winning Raspberry Rhubarb Pie