What Is Rhubarb?
Mention rhubarb and one thing springs to mind — dessert. (And perhaps, poisonous, but we'll get to that later.) At first blush, rhubarb is seemingly one of the few vegetables that's primarily used for dessert — they don't call it "pieplant" for nothing. And, of course, life just wouldn't be the same without the occasional piping-hot strawberry rhubarb cobbler, straight out of the oven, or a pleasing country-style tart in the spring, or perhaps an easier-than-pie rhubarb fool.
But rhubarb is not confined to dessert. It makes for a nice chutney (perhaps to be served with a roast pork tenderloin), turns into an elegant syrup to be mixed into cocktails (like this rhubarbarella cocktail), and with a little love and a lot of sugar, transforms into a delectable sweet and tart jam to go with a morning bun. Rhubarb is often incorporated into recipes after blanching, which softens it up; its flavor profile and texture after cooking make it a good substitute for cooked cranberries.
Rhubarb is often sold with most of its leaves trimmed off (if not all), and with good reason. The leaves and roots are full of oxalic acid, which makes them moderately toxic. What remains resembles a bunch of red celery stalks. This vegetable, hailing from northern Asia, and whose seemingly random relatives include buckwheat and equally tart sorrel, is essentially available nearly year-round in two commercial varieties.
From March through October, look for field-grown rhubarb, which has bright red stalks and deep green leaves. Field-grown rhubarb is at its best from April through June. From December through March, look for hothouse rhubarb, which is paler in color. When shopping for rhubarb, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is one pound of rhubarb yields about two cups of cooked rhubarb. And whichever variety is available, the prep remains the same. Older stalks tend to have fibrous strings that need to be removed, which is easily done with a pair of kitchen shears or a paring knife by making a small incision off one end and continuing downward in one smooth stroke.
So give rhubarb a try. It'll count toward the five-servings-of-vegetables-a-day ideal that everyone strives for, but never quite achieves. Just try not to think about all the sugar.