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In Season: Rhubarb - more than just for pie

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Written by Sophia Markoulakis   
Friday, 05 June 2009

ImageRhubarb is one of those foods that you see and think, "Why would I eat that, let alone trouble myself with it in the kitchen?" It's got a lot of things going against it. It's not a nutritional powerhouse. Like celery, rhubarb is 95% water and just has an average amount of potassium and vitamin C. It contains a good amount of calcium, but the toxin oxalate prevents our bodies from absorbing it. Oh well. And those beautiful green leaves and leaf stems - steer clear of those because they are highly toxic.

So why all the fuss about this odd vegetable? If we could confer with the ancient Chinese who were the first to use it medicinally, they would tell us that they used the plant's dried root to aid all types of gastrointestinal ailments. It slowly made its way to America in the late 1800s and was favored by settlers who still had a thing for their British compotes and custards.


Over time, rhubarb became better known as the "pie plant", thanks to a generous dose of sugar and its partner in pie, the strawberry. But rhubarb isn't just delicious in pie. When chopped and added to baked desserts like cobblers, crisps, and crumbles, rhubarb's stalks turn seductively silky and tart-sweet. In the hands of adept chefs, rhubarb, is appearing on menus in its raw and unadulterated state, and is being paired with rich savory foods like thick-fleshed fish, duck, and foie gras.

While hothouse rhubarb is available year round, the field rhubarb season across the nation, from west to east, begins in March and runs through July. Its smooth, celery-like stalks vary in color between light green and pink to deep red, and the redder the stalks the deeper the flavor, which can be bright, acidic, and pleasantly tart.

Many people that cook with rhubarb for the first time are amazed at its complexity and ability to play with exotic flavors such as ginger, cardamom, rosewater; herbs such as basil, lavender, and rosemary; and other fruits such as cherries, apples, and oranges. So give rhubarb a chance, whether you have plenty of it from your CSA or spy it at the farmers' market.

Cleaning & Prep

First, remove any leaves and leaf stems and discard immediately. Rhubarb is very perishable and will wilt if not stored properly. Wrap unwashed and untrimmed stalks in plastic wrap and store in the fridge for up to a week. Once you are ready to work with the stalks, remove from the fridge and trim them at both ends; rinse and dry.

Note: Because of rhubarb's high acid content, it should be cooked in a non-reactive pan such as anodized aluminum, stainless steel, Teflon-coated, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Preparing for use in recipes

Rhubarb cooks fairly quickly so there's no need to pre-cook or blanch it for recipes. Most baked fruit desserts like pies and cobblers call for raw rhubarb. One medium-size stalk yields one cup chopped rhubarb.


If you have excess stalks, chop them into 1-inch pieces, place on a sheet pan, and freeze. When frozen, remove from pan and store in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer for up to 6 months.


Cut stalks into 5-inch lengths and store in an airtight container or resealable bag for up to one week.


If you want to make a quick compote to have on hand for last-minute serving ideas, combine rhubarb, sugar, and a tablespoon or two of water in a saucepan and simmer on medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. By measuring your sugar in tablespoons you can increase your proportions accordingly, so start with a 1 cup chopped rhubarb to 4 tablespoons of sugar ratio. Remember that 6 tablespoons equals 1/4 cup. Store, covered in the fridge, for up to 2 weeks.

Incorporating into recipes


In Vegetarian Times' Crunchy Rhubarb-Apple Salad recipe (view recipe, save recipe), tart rhubarb gives this fresh tasting salad extra bite.

Add thinly sliced rhubarb to a spinach and strawberry salad with goat cheese and toasted sliced almonds. Dress with a raspberry vinaigrette.

Finely cube rhubarb and add it to a fruit-based salsa such as mango or pineapple.


Gourmet's Black Sea Bass with Sweet-and-Sour Orange Rhubarb Sauce (view recipe, save recipe) is a perfect example of pairing rhubarb with flavors such as cinnamon and ginger.

Coupling the economical pork chop with this delicious dried cherry-rhubarb sauce in this Everyday Food recipe Pork Chops with Rhubarb-Cherry Sauce (view recipe, save recipe) elevates the dish to a new level.

When simmering a sweet hickory-flavored homemade barbecue sauce, add a cup of finely chopped rhubarb to the non-reactive saucepan.

Add a handful of golden raisins and chopped toasted walnuts to the compote recipe above and flavor with a splash of balsamic vinegar for a savory chutney-style relish.


This Cooking Light Rhubarb Pudding Cake (view recipe, save recipe) is so simple, yet delicious with a thin layer of fresh rhubarb at the bottom of the pan that bakes into the batter.

Make a rhubarb syrup by combining 4 cups chopped rhubarb, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup water in a non-reactive saucepan. Simmer on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb is cooked, about 20 minutes. Strain mixture through a fine sieve, and store syrup in the fridge for up to two weeks. Use in cocktails, spritzers, or on pancakes.

Similar to the syrup recipe above, Cooking Light's Citrusy Rhubarb Sorbet (view recipe, save recipe) uses a rhubarb syrup as the base for this quick and refreshing dessert.

If peach and rhubarb season intersect where you live, this Food Network recipe for Rhubarb Peach Cobbler (view recipe, save recipe) is a great way to showcase both seasonal fruits.


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 17 June 2009 )
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