Rhubarb

The arrival of rhubarb is a welcome splash of color and sour spunk.

When it comes to rhubarb, now available locally, things are not always what they seem. We think of it as a fruit (but it’s actually related to sorrel and buckwheat). We refer to its edible stalks, which are in fact called petioles. It looks like the most beautiful celery you ever did see, so surely you can eat it raw (not recommended unless it’s finely chopped). And every spring, we tell ourselves the same rose-colored story — that the only way to enjoy rhubarb is to pair it with strawberries.

Depending on the weather, strawberry season may or may not sync up with rhubarb, which means two things: Quit waiting around for the berries to arrive and lean into the rhubarb. All the hearsay is true; rhubarb is unequivocally sour and its disposition needs sugaring up.

But contrary to popular belief, rhubarb requires moderate (rather than excessive) sweetening and the strawberry is just one of many suitable companions. We have all seen recipes that call for 1 cup of sugar for every pound of rhubarb, the equivalent of sugar with a side of rhubarb.

To deepen one’s relationship with rhubarb is to set aside strawberry-conceived notions and appreciate its truly tart and sometimes off-putting personality. The possibilities are more than meets the eye, just like rhubarb itself.

What follows are some ideas and pairings to get you on your rhubarbed way.

SPICES AND AROMATICS

  • Ginger, freshly grated, ground and candied
  • Ground cardamom, cinnamon and star anise
  • Pink peppercorns (much more floral than black peppercorns)

SWEETENERS

Instead of sugar, try…

  • Honey (with its floral notes, possibly my favorite rhubarb sweetener)
  • Maple syrup (although it can dominate)
  • Pomegranate molasses (works similarly to balsamic vinegar)
  • Date syrup (also sold as silan; great for drizzling at the table)

FATS

Rhubarb really likes fat, in the form of…

  • Dairy: Think yogurt, ice cream, crème fraiche, a hunk of brie or Camembert, cream cheese, mascarpone. If you do dairy, any of these options is a home run.
  • Meat and fish: Roasted rhubarb (see recipe details below) is the sassy cousin to apple sauce and is a terrific side to roast chicken, duck or pork, or with oily fish such as salmon, trout or mackerel. I might even spread some on a turkey sandwich in the style of cranberry sauce.
  • Nuts: Rhubarb is a natural for all kinds of baked goodies, from crisps and cobblers to upside-down cakes and scones. Nuts add richness but also texture, particularly from walnuts, almonds and pistachios.

GRAINS

Rhubarb responds well to the varied texture of grains, including cornmeal (think pancakes); bulgur wheat (as a sopping-up vehicle on your dinner plate); oats (granola with a heap of rhubarb compote or a crumb topping on that crisp); and its cousin buckwheat (think crepes or a pot of morning porridge).

ACID

Despite its radically tart nature, rhubarb appreciates a small amount of acid in the form of citrus juice and/or zest; floral wines like rose; and mild types of vinegar, including apple, balsamic and rice. In coming days, I am planning to puree some cooked rhubarb with apple cider vinegar, chopped shallot, a smidge of mustard and olive oil and see what happens.

Rhubarb soda

A fizzy zero-proof cocktail of rhubarb syrup and sparkling water.

COCKTAILS (OR MOCKTAILS)

In less than 30 minutes, you can make a syrup-like rhubarb mixer that will make you feel like a proper mixologist. Use it to jazz up your favorite sparkling water or mix into a rum, tequila or vodka cocktail. The pale pink color is dreamy and may make you feel like you’re on vacation. Recipe details follow.

ROAST IT

(Recipe details follow)

  • With breakfast or dessert in mind: Spread on toast with cream cheese or brie; spoon atop yogurt or granola; fold into whipped cream.
  • With dinner, cheese plate or sandwiches in mind: Because roasted rhubarb is both assertive and melty, it is a killer companion to roasted, grilled or smoked protein. Cheese plate lovers, swap out the fig compote for rhubarb until figs are back in season. I’m thinking of bacon with my rhubarb, leaving out the tomato, for a twist on a BLT.

ROASTED RHUBARB, TWO WAYS

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a roasting pan or baking dish with parchment paper.

Cut 1 pound of rhubarb into 2-inch pieces and place in a bowl. Add 1/4 cup sugar, stirring until coated.

Savory:

  • Add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar and 1/2 pound onions, cut into half-moons or leeks, cut into similar-size pieces as the rhubarb. Stir until evenly coated. Transfer to lined pan and arrange in a single layer. Add 1/4 cup water. Cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes, checking for doneness. Cook until onions and rhubarb are fork tender; total cooking time may be 35 to 40 minutes.

Sweet:

  • Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, the zest and juice of an orange, 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/4 teaspoon ground star anise. Stir until evenly coated. Transfer to a roasting pan or baking dish and arrange in a single layer. Add 2 tablespoons water. Cover with foil and roast until rhubarb is fork tender, about 20 minutes.

TIP

  • Let rhubarb cool in the pan for about 20 minutes; this helps the rhubarb keep its shape.

RHUBARB SYRUP

Adapted from “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars” by Marisa McClellan

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound rhubarb stalks, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 to 4 cups water
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (optional)

Directions:

1. Place rhubarb in a medium pot and add enough water to just hover. Place over medium-high heat, cover and bring to a boil.

2. Cook until the rhubarb has surrendered and is soft enough to be mashed with a fork.

3. Set up a fine-mesh sieve or strainer to sit over a large bowl. Pour the rhubarb and juices into the sieve and let the juices pass through undisturbed. Take McClellan’s advice and resist the urge to press the pulp, which results in a cloudy liquid. (You can repurpose rhubarb mash into the next day’s breakfast with yogurt.)

4. Wipe inside of pot as needed and add strained juice.

5. Over medium heat, add the honey, stirring until dissolved. Bring to a boil, cooking until slightly reduced and thickened, about 10 minutes.

To make a soda:

Use 3 tablespoons cordial for an eight-ounce glass; add ice and soda water, stir and sip. Boozy playmates include: rum, tequila and vodka.¶

What to Read Next