Rhubarb can be a daunting vegetable. Macrobiotics, novice cooks and arthritics shun it. Seasonally fleeting, with huge stalks, poisonous leaves and stunning sourness, we resort to sugar to subdue it.
Although rhubarb is assertive, if you treat it with respect, it will enliven and enhance other foods. As any elderly grandmother will tell you, patience pays off with rhubarb.
Chinese gardeners have grown rhubarb for several millennia. Marco Polo brought this red stalk to Europe in the 13th century, but rhubarb has only been growing in the US since 1820. European settlers brought it to Maine and Massachusetts and it moved westward from there.
Cooks have for so long depended upon lots of sugar, honey or maple syrup to temper rhubarb’s strong acid note in desserts. Its affinity for sweet spices like ginger, clove, cardamom, cinnamon and allspice is well-known. There’s no better pie than rhubarb with apples or strawberries and a touch of cinnamon. Sliced razor thin and macerated in maple syrup or a sweet wine and ginger or cardamom, raw rhubarb becomes a refreshingly crisp and tart chutney.
Like apples, rhubarb binds moisture in baked things. Toss raw, diced rhubarb into poultry stuffing, breads, muffins, biscuits, pancake or waffle batter and cakes before baking. Simmer fresh rhubarb with strawberries in water, strain and stir lemon juice and sugar into the water for a unique lemonade. Rhubarb cooks down to a lovely, soft-textured mush, which makes it an amiable, soothing base for sauce. Purée cooked rhubarb with fresh berries or bananas, to make a nutrient-dense sweet pudding without the sugar. Simmer rhubarb with dried apples for natural sweetness without sugar.
Rhubarb’s complex, sour flavor and gem-like hue make it as versatile in savory dishes as sweet. Add rhubarb to dishes that might call for other sour foods like citrus, tamarind and vinegar. You might recoil at the idea of a stalky heap of rhubarb paired with chicken, lamb or lentils; perhaps you don’t realize that rhubarb, although it is called “pie plant” and pairs endearingly with sweet and fruit, is at heart, a vegetable.
You’ll have to be brave to transform rhubarb from its sour bite to its brilliant savory-vegetable side. Use it as you would tart apples or tomatoes. Rhubarb’s lemony flavor melds well with fish and meat dishes and as a tart addition to stews, casseroles and soups. It shines in Chinese flavored stir-fries with minced pork. Roast rhubarb chunks with chicken, onion and raisins to radically change it. Simmer slices with diced apples, rosemary, honey and beer in a pan sauce for pork. Prepare a sauce for fish: sauté shallots and ginger in butter, toss in small cubes of rhubarb and garnish with balsamic vinegar. Polish cooks combine rhubarb, potatoes and mushrooms into a cheese or crumb-topped gratin to serve with roast pork.
Choose rhubarb with fresh crisp stalks. (Narrow, riper stalks are said to be sweeter; thicker stalks very tart.) As rhubarb ages it acquires more fibrous strings. Look for the youngest, most unblemished rhubarb. Refrigerate fresh rhubarb up to a week in plastic bags. To freeze, choose firm stalks, wash, trim and cut into lengths. Drop rhubarb into boiling water 30 seconds. Drain in colander and rinse with ice cold water to retain color and flavor. Drain, and freeze in zipper baggies. Rhubarb is high in oxalates so consume in moderation; cooking reduces oxalates.
Rhubarb deserves more esteem; it is a natural flavor enhancer. Aim to gently soften, not harshly subdue, rhubarb’s overbearing tartness. Allow it to add the spunkiness that brings sauces, pies, crisps, soups, stews, casseroles, pilafs, jelly and beverages alive with rich, cheery flavor. After all, we cook for a sense of happiness and harmony. Rhubarb, daunting as it may appear, may just need a little extra help to harmonize with other ingredients.
Rhubarb, Ginger and Saffron Baked Chicken
Great with rice or couscous. Red onion is a colorful accent.
Yields 4 to 6 servings
2-1/2 C. sliced fresh, thick rhubarb, 1 to 1-1/2 inches long
2 C. thinly sliced red onion
2 T. minced peeled fresh ginger
1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
3 t. sea salt
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. ground turmeric
Big pinch of saffron
1/4 to 1/2 C. white wine or apple cider PLUS 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 lb. bone-in, skinless chicken thighs or chicken parts
1/4 to 1/2 C. black raisins
1/4 C. chopped Italian parsley
1/4 C. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Combine rhubarb, onion, fresh ginger, garlic, oil, salt, ground ginger, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron and wine or juice in a large bowl. Add chicken and raisins, and mix thoroughly. This may be done a day ahead. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before baking.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Keep chicken in a single layer. Bake chicken until tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Baste with juice. Turn off oven. Rest chicken in oven up to 30 minutes if necessary or serve immediately. Serve chicken sprinkled with parsley and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
— developed by Chef-Educator Nancy Krcek Allen
Slow-Cooked Sweet and Sour Lamb Stew with Rhubarb and Mint (KHORESHT-E REEVAAS)
In ancient Persian mythology the human race is said to have sprung from the seeds of a rhubarb plant. Iranians love sour food and this dish definitely reflects that. Lamb shoulder on the bone is the best cut for this dish. Have the butcher cut it into approximately 1-inch square chunks. Serve with Persian rice and a green salad.
Yields 4 to 6 servings
2 T. olive oil, more as needed
1 large onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 lb. bone-in lamb, cut into approximately 1- to 1-1/2-inch cubes
1/2 t. turmeric
Optional: 1 quart chicken stock
1 C. packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1/2 C. packed fresh mint leaves, finely sliced
1 T. dried mint
1 T. cornstarch mixed into 2 tablespoons cold water or stock
2 T. sugar or maple syrup
7 to 8 oz. rhubarb, cut on the diagonal in 1-inch long pieces
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry onions until soft, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, lamb, turmeric and black pepper. Raise heat to brown meat on all sides. Add enough cold chicken stock or water to barely cover meat. Cover skillet and lower heat. Simmer 45 minutes.
Set aside 2 tablespoons parsley and 1 tablespoon fresh mint for garnish. Place remaining herbs in a large skillet. Dry fry herbs over low heat until they start to darken, 5 minutes. Stir frequently so they don’t burn. Remove from heat and set aside.
After meat has cooked, add cooked herbs, dried mint and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Simmer until meat is completely tender, about 30 minutes.
Stir in cornstarch mixture, sugar and rhubarb. Cook, uncovered until rhubarb is just cooked through and tender, about 10 minutes. Taste to adjust the seasoning adding a bit more sweetener, dried mint or salt and pepper. Before serving, garnish with reserved parsley and mint.
— Adapted from Yasmin Khan
Indian-Spiced Lentils with Rhubarb and Spinach
Rhubarb’s tart flavor complements the Indian spices, sweet raisins and spinach. Serve with Basmati rice or chapattis.
Yields 6 servings
3 T. coconut oil, divided
1-1/2 C. diced red onion
1 C. small yellow lentils, rinsed and drained
3-1/2 to 4 C. vegetable broth or water
1/2 C. golden raisins
1/2 lb. fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 C. baby spinach leaves
2 T. dark mustard seeds
2 t. whole cumin seeds
3 T. minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 C. finely sliced cilantro
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until onions color, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in lentils and 3 cups broth; bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 20 minutes.
Fold in raisins and rhubarb and 1/2 cup broth; cook 5 minutes. Fold in spinach, cover, and cook mixture 5 minutes more. Remove from heat. Stir in more broth or water, as needed, to achieve a moderately soupy texture. This will thicken as it sits.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add mustard and cumin seeds. Cover skillet, and cook until seeds begin to pop, about 30 seconds. Stir in ginger and garlic and cook 30 to 60 seconds more. Reheat lentils if necessary. Stir spice mixture into lentils, cover and rest 15 minutes. Garnish with cilantro. Serve hot.