EDIBLE SEASONAL KITCHEN
VERSATILITY OF RHUBARB
BY CLAIR FITTS
Photograph by Carole Topalian
hile to some people rhubarb is that strange pink celery-looking thing in the grocery store, most everyone else has a strong opinion of the vegetable. Its strong, tart flavor and prolific growing style means that most either love it or hate it.
Rhubarb is a perennial that might start small and cute, but will slowly—year after year, much like lilies—take over whatever land you allow it. Because Vermont’s climate is well suited to rhubarb growth, a landowner really doesn’t need to do anything to encourage this tart veggie on its slow path to garden domination. However, a gardener can split the root mass, as with lilies, and pass the mouth-puckering goodness on to another landowner.
If you’re cutting your own rhubarb from the plant, make sure to remove and discard the leaves. Most folks gently describe the leaves as “toxic,” but the throatclosing ability of consumed leaves might better be described as downright poisonous. Fortunately, all the bad stuff stays in the leaves and the stalks are left with the tasty, tangy goodness.
Legally (in the United States) rhubarb is classified as a fruit, and most people serve it up with other fruits, but botanically it’s actually a vegetable. It’s extremely common to cook rhubarb up in pies and jams, but fortunately rhubarb can show its true vegetable colors in more savory fare. Much like lemon or lime, its tartness fits very well with meats and sauces. It’s also good in stir-fries and can make a tasty fresh spring salsa.
Strawberry is the most traditional rhubarb buddy, but here in Vermont strawberry and rhubarb seasons don’t line up as neatly as they do in other parts of the country. This gives you a great excuse to combine rhubarb with more creative ingredients. I tried to feature some of the more unusual uses of rhubarb in the recipes here, to help you make the most of your crop. But if you can’t seem to use up all your rhubarb (or pawn it off on enough unsuspecting neighbors with unlocked doors), freeze it! Just slice it up and toss it in a bag in the freezer for later use. One nice thwack on the counter and the frozen diced rhubarb block becomes handy scoopable pieces (rinse off any ice crystals that have formed). I’ve used frozen rhubarb for hot sauce, salad dressing and even an incredible Maple Rhubarb Ground Cherry Jam.
I brought the meatballs featured here to a potluck and while most folks didn’t guess what the tart flavor in the meatball was, they kept going back for more. The potluck host gave an emphatic, “Yes, YES!” when asked if he wanted the last four meatballs. After the third batch of this recipe (the first of which was actually a very tasty Rhubarb Onion Hamburger), I figured I finally had a winner.
And on the sweeter side of things, the Rosemary Rhubarb Maple Crème Brûlée is just all kinds of delicious. Rosemary is going to be one of those ingredients that your guests won’t be able to place (or sometimes even notice), but will thoroughly enjoy. It gives a nice roundness to the rhubarb’s tartness and maple’s sweetness. Don’t be daunted by crème brûlée if you’ve never made it. It’s surprisingly easy and a great make-mostly-ahead dessert for a busy work night or an important dinner (which is why fancy restaurants with even the most simplistic of dessert menus make sure to include crème brûlée).
Rhubarb is one of those ingredients that can taste delicious in a wide variety of dishes, so you can really have fun with it. If you don’t have a stash of your own, just put the word out to anyone you know with a spit of land (or anyone who knows anyone with a spit of land). You might just find a nice bundle of rhubarb outside your front door (or inside your unlocked car.