Tangy Summer Stalks of Flavor
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.
- There are two types of rhubarb: "hothouse," also called "strawberry rhubarb," and "field grown or "cherry rhubarb." The names are informative. Hothouse are more cultivated and have a paler, pink color; the field grown, grown wild, can be coarser, have a more acidic taste, and a deeper pink color.
- The color of the stalks will be the color of the cooked rhubarb. So if you buy pale green stalks, your finished dish, whether a rhubarb crisp or a compote, will also be pale green. If you want to ensure your cooked rhubarb has a pink color, select stalks that are as pink or red as you can find.
- Rhubarb stalks contain a great deal of moisture. This is a plus when stewing to make a compote because adding a little sugar will help draw out water and you won't need to add any additional liquid except for flavor, as with a tablespoon or so of orange juice or ruby port. But all that liquid is a factor when making a pie or crisp or cobbler. Adding a little thickening agent, such as tapioca, cornstarch or flour will help prevent the rhubarb from flooding anything you bake.
- Choose stalks that are firm and crisp with a bright, clear color. Avoid ones with blemishes and if you happen to find stalks sold with their leaves intact, discard the leaves before storing and cooking the rhubarb.
- Store raw rhubarb stalks refrigerated, left unwashed until you're ready to cook them, and loosely wrapped in a plastic bag.
- Because of its high amount of acid, rhubarb is best cooked in non-reactive cookware. For example, don't make a rhubarb cobbler in a cast iron casserole.
- If the stalks seem coarse, pull off any obvious strings. You don’t have to peel the stalks; just trim off any rough areas or marks. The stalks are usually cut into 1/2 to 1-inch pieces before cooking, with slices cut on the diagonal, against the grain of the stalk – this helps break any stringiness.
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 Crisp. See our recipe for this baked dessert with pieces of rhubarb tossed with sugar, orange zest and a little thickener (tapioca or cornstarch) and covered with a streusel-like topping.
- Rhubarb Chutney. A savory side that brightens fish or poultry. We found an appealing recipe at Bon Appétit Magazine (see a link below).
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie. This is the kind of old fashioned pie that conjures images of state fair pie competitions. Try to find locally-grown strawberries and make your favorite pastry dough for the crust. But if you're not a pie baker, this recipe will work very well with a store-bought pie crust. Remember the scoop of vanilla ice cream on a slice of still-warm pie. See our recipe.
- Rhubarb Compote. This may be my favorite way to cook rhubarb and it's certainly the most versatile. Pieces of rhubarb are tossed with sugar and left to sit until moisture begins to appear in the pan. Cook over a low simmer for about 15 minutes until the fruit turns completely soft. The result is a kind of jam that can be delicious on its own as a compliment to roast pork or duck breasts in the same way that cranberry sauce is used with turkey. But you can also add spoonfuls to sweetened whipped cream to make "Rhubarb Fool," or served warm as a sauce on ice cream (on top of home-made strawberry ice cream would be wonderful), or stirred into plain yogurt, or as a side to a plain slice of pound cake.
Other ways to cook rhubarb include as a filling for a streudel made with filo dough, as the main ingredient in salsa, in muffins or cookies, or as the foundation to a rhubarb cobbler. Once you fall in love with the flavor and know how to balance the acid with either sugar or fruit, rhubarb can be a favorite summer treat.
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!
Sources: Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The Rhubarb Compendium
External Link: Bon Appetit's Rhubarb Chutney (link will open in a new window)
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