Somehow in my more than 30 years (ahem) on this planet I have missed (escaped?) a run-in with that lithe, fuchsia vegetable known as rhubarb. Sure, I know what it is and what it looks like. I know people bake with it, and that it is often married with strawberries and featured in things called “slumps” and “grunts,” or more familiarly, crumbs, crisps and pies. I’ve never actually had the pleasure (?) myself, though.
I sort of despise celery, unless it’s well cloaked in soup or sauce, so avoidance of rhubarb in its resemblance to pink celery could have been unconscious. That certainly doesn’t endear me to it.
But people seem to speak of rhubarb with a certain reverence — as a plucky little vegetable that transforms from a crunchy and bitter stalk to a tart, soft compote. It creates desserts that we associate with our heritage, like those old English puddings and American-settler era fruit crisps. I’ve heard rhubarb described as “what tart would smell like, if tart were a smell.”*
When I was at the beach a couple of weekends ago, I was catching up on magazine reading, from 2009. (Sad but true.) In an issue of O Magazine, I came across a lovely, in-depth spread about rhubarb. That’s when I realized I had never been in proximity to a stalk of rhubarb, much less had ever tasted a rhubarb dessert. So, it seems time to add rhubarb to my culinary bucket list.
From my research, I understand that rhubarb is popular in England.
It’s leaves are poisonous. (Um.)
It’s often used in Chinese medicine.
And it makes an excellent laxative. (Um.)
Though you could consider it a vegetable, a New York court ruled in 1947 that rhubarb was a fruit in order to save on regulation and duty taxes. What a strange history.
In cooking, rhubarb is usually chopped and stewed with sugar until it’s soft and cooked down. From there it becomes jam, pie and tart filling or the fruit base of a crumble. It’s not only for desserts, though. I’m sure you can find rhubarb as an accompaniment to meats, fish or other savory items.
I’m not sure how I’ll happen upon rhubarb in my life — whether I’ll order it off a menu for the first time or try my hand at cooking it myself. But I’ll take recommendations — if anyone has rhubarb advice or a recipe you want to share, send it my way.
*”Scarlet Fever,” O Magazine, May 2009