Rhubarb Season

by Elizabeth Skipper | June 12th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

rhubarbBesides using rhubarb in desserts, such as cookie bars or pies, how can I use this produce item? As it is available for only a short period of time, I would like to utilize it as much as possible.

Rhubarb is such a satisfying vegetable to grow. As one of the first harvests of the spring, it’s a welcome sight in the garden. Winter’s finally, truly over, is what it signals to me. That, and the way it grows with so little care, get me excited about a new gardening season.

Did I write vegetable? Yes, while rhubarb is generally thought of as a fruit, it’s botanically a vegetable. Actually, it’s one of two perennial vegetables I can think of. Can you name the other?

While we think of rhubarb with thick red stalks, there are different varieties. The one growing in my garden, for instance, is green with a reddish tinge; some are pink. However, they all taste much the same.

Probably because it’s sweetened and/or paired with other fruits, we think of rhubarb primarily for sweet dishes. It’s so tart, a lot of sweetener is required to make rhubarb palatable. That’s also why it’s good mixed with strawberries, which are in season at the same time, but also raspberries, apples, oranges, and bananas.

That acidity works well with savory dishes, though. Though I haven’t tried them all, I’ve collected recipes for rhubarb in combination with beef, lamb, fish, pork (especially pork), and even one for scrambled eggs with rhubarb. Used this way, the rhubarb is mostly made into a sauce, salsa, or chutney to accompany the meat, but I have one recipe for chicken which bakes with rhubarb on top of it. I’ve seen rhubarb used in a vegetarian lentil curry. How about rhubarb with foie gras? (I’ll take just about anything with foie gras, thank you very much; but since fruit is usually good with it, why not rhubarb?)

You can cook rhubarb to a pulp very quickly – no need to cook it for 45 minutes or more, as I’ve seen in some older recipes. Then purée it, and you can make (deep breath here) …  sauces, fools, creams set with gelatin, ice, sherbet, pudding, brulée, mousse, soufflé, cold soup, smoothies … Without puréeing it, think jam, marmalade, curd, brown betty, crisp, pie, tarts, cake, upside down cake, refrigerator cake, shortbread, trifle, crêpes.

Rhubarb makes refreshing beverages like a Polish drink made with rhubarb and honey; and if you have the time and inclination, you could try your hand at making rhubarb wine. Wine not?

A couple of comments about using rhubarb. Cutting it into 6″ lengths and pre-soaking it for twenty minutes in cold water helps reduce the acidity. This leaches some of the anthocyanins which cause both the characteristic puckery mouth-feel and the pink color. If you’ve cooked much with rhubarb, you know that the pretty red/pink color fades in cooking. The same happens to vegetables like red cabbage when they become alkaline (although red cabbage tends to turn blue.) The cure is the same for both – add a bit of acid. A bit of vinegar in cabbage won’t affect the flavor negatively, but vinegar with rhubarb is too much. The solution is to use something like orange or grapefruit juice, which are acid but also sweet. This will keep your rhubarb dish from turning an insipid grey, and adds a complementary flavor.

Spices that go well with rhubarb include cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Vanilla complements it, as does maple syrup. I’ll leave you with one of my daughter’s favorite rhubarb recipes. I’d make a batch, and the next day it would all be gone. It’s easy, refreshing, and absolutely delicious.

Strawberry Rhubarb Soup

3 stalks rhubarb, peeled & cut into 1 ½” chunks
2 cups hulled sliced strawberries
½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup plain whole milk yogurt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Fresh mint leaves for garnish

Simmer the rhubarb in enough water to barely cover until tender. Allow to cool. Blend together with the strawberries, orange juice, sugar, yogurt, and vanilla extract. Process until smooth. Pour into a medium bowl and refrigerate until the soup is well chilled. Serve garnished with mint leaves. Supposedly serves 4, but not in our house!

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