Pucker up! It’s rhubarb season again.
Rhubarb is one of our first spring treasures — a “fruit” before our other favorite fruits come along. Its tart tang can be tamed by almost anything sweet, and in turn rhubarb enhances the flavors of other foods. The classic pairing is with strawberries, but it also brings out the best in citrus. This is why you’ll often see rhubarb cropping up in recipes that find a delicious balance in the interplay of sweet and sour. On the herbal side, rhubarb is especially good buddies with ginger and pie spices like cloves and allspice.
For its diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, rhubarb has long been used in natural medicine. But perhaps of more interest, it is low in calories yet high in calcium (almost a third of your recommended daily amount) and potassium, plus plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, folate and iron. All in all, rhubarb is excellent and now is the time to enjoy it.
Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable. Related to celery, rhubarb’s long, ribbed, red stalks are crisp when raw, but cook down into a better-than-it-looks thick mush that’s perfect for preserves, relishes, chutneys and sauces. The red stalks are evidence of the immune-boosting anthocyanin pigments in rhubarb. Some harder to find varieties, such as ‘Early Champagne,’ have green stalks (they taste similar), but if you want to try those, you’ll probably have to grow them yourself. Lucky for you: Rhubarb is a cold-hardy perennial, and it’s easy to grow. Plus, its leaves and roots naturally produce a toxic compound called oxalic acid that helps ward off predators. (Note: Only the stems are edible.) Rhubarb stores quite well in the freezer — just wash and cut it into manageable pieces, then store in freezer bags to use until you have access to fresh rhubarb again.
The most common — and commonly beloved — preparation of rhubarb is in classic strawberry-rhubarb pie. In fact, rhubarb is known affectionately as “pie plant.” But because you can find hundreds of free recipes online for strawberry-rhubarb pie, I’ve decided to explore a few of rhubarb’s other culinary possibilities: as an unusual pickle, a tangy salad dressing and a wonderfully unique dessert topping. But no serious lover of rhubarb would dare snub the strawberry, and I bet you’ll love the creamy, citrusy-ey strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, too. If you want to get even more adventurous, try making refreshing effervescent rhubarb wine or a unique and tasty rhubarb cocktail. Happy spring and bon appétit!