What's in Season: Rhubarb

Tangy Summer Stalks of Flavor

Sources: Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The Rhubarb Compendium

What's in Season: Rhubarb

Tangy Summer Stalks of Flavor

Sources: Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The Rhubarb Compendium

In the small Massachusetts town where I grew up, rhubarb used to grow wild in the wooded area near our house. Being kids prone to doing dumb and funny things, some of us would eat it raw, torturing one another in a contest of who could eat the most and cry the least from its aggressive sour flavor.

It was years later that I had the courage to taste it again, this time discovering that rhubarb can be one of summer’s best treats. Its tang can be converted into a complex, sweet and acidic flavor used in both desserts and savory dishes. Nothing quite looks like rhubarb and no other vegetable tastes like it either.

While it's easy to assume that something famous for being in sweet Strawberry-Rhubarb pie is a fruit, according to food chemistry authority Harold McGee, it's a perennial herb: Rheum rhabarbarum. Rhubarb almost always comes to our markets as celery-like stalks, minus its wide, green leaves that contain oxalic acid which is toxic (a little will make you sick; a lot can kill you). But rhubarb stalks are completely safe and healthy to eat, once you tame its assertive taste.

With its big personality, rhubarb has been used medicinally, to color hair (brewed as a tea to add golden highlights), as a natural and non-toxic scrub to clean pots and pans, and by gardeners as a safe-to-humans insecticide. All this -- AND it can be dessert!

While rhubarb is grown in greenhouses and is available almost year-round, it's in season in the spring and summer and is now arriving in our Greenmarkets.

Buying and Cooking With Rhubarb


Favorite Rhubarb Recipes

If rhubarb is unfamiliar to you, don't be intimidated by its sour reputation. Instead, think of its complex taste as one that can be either subtle or forward, adding detail to the pure sweetness of some summer fruits as in the classic "Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie" which has a strawberry flavor made more interesting from high notes from the rhubarb. The rhubarb pieces also cook into a soft texture, adding an almost pudding-like silk to the pieces of strawberry.

But rhubarb can stand alone either as a sweet dessert or a savory side. Some of the most popular ways to cook with rhubarb include:


Rhubarb's big personality has inspired more than childhood dares to eat food found in the woods. "The Rhubarb Compendium," a website devoted to growing, buying and eating this tangy vegetable, shares some limerick poetry sent to them by a rhubarb fan:

 

Rhubarb when raw is so tough

And its leaves contain poisonous stuff,

But when cleaned and de-soiled

Dipped in sugar and boiled

Then the stalks are quite tasty enough.

-- "The Rhubarb Compendium"

 

Happy almost summer!

 

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