Rhubarb — like spring itself — is fleeting and lovely. A vegetable that often masquerades as a fruit in sweet dishes, it is a true harbinger of the season, appearing in April and, if we're lucky, lasting until July. But it is best to seize rhubarb's moment and take full advantage as soon as its delicate pink and green ribs start appearing in markets and gardens.
Last year I became enamored — nay, obsessed — with the classic combination of strawberries and rhubarb, turning out at least two-dozen jars of jam over the course of a few weeks. I stockpiled rhubarb from the farmers market and my mother-in-law's garden, either tucking it immediately into cakes or pies or chopping up the ribs and freezing them for later use. (Rhubarb both freezes and thaws beautifully, making it handy to store for when it's out of season and you need a fix.)
I will on occasion take a taste of rhubarb in its raw form — reminiscent in appearance, though not in taste, to celery — while preparing it for use. I actually recommend this at least once in a lifetime: To really taste rhubarb's mouth-puckering sourness before stewing it down with sugar is not an unpleasant experience. And allowing a hint of that bracing flavor to sing through is a wonderful foil to pork or poultry.
(You could also try dipping pieces of rhubarb into little dishes of honey or sugar and consuming them raw, though I will admit this is an acquired taste.)
Still, I especially love to temper rhubarb's tartness into something a bit mellower with the addition of honey, particularly in jams or compotes, which is the perfect complement to the earthy, delicate flavor of this vegetable-slash-fruit.
Rhubarb is readily available during spring and early summer; the Pacific Northwest has a second harvest between June and July so it may linger longer there. I have seen rhubarb growing into late August in Northern California, though that typically depends on how much rainfall the state has seen during the previous winter. Hothouse rhubarb is grown year-round, but I like to seize its moment in the sun and appreciate it more for its short tenure.
If you grow your own rhubarb, make sure to discard the leaves before cooking because they are toxic (if you buy rhubarb stalks in a market you won't have to worry about this). Wash the stalks well before using, and trim any woody ends. Rhubarb is a source of calcium, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin K, fiber and antioxidants, making that flaky piece of rhubarb-mint pie even more appealing.
I came to fully appreciate rhubarb's charm a year ago when I spent the weekend at my parents' place in Sebastopol, Calif. My mom mentioned that her Scottish grandmother had made rhubarb compote after she immigrated to the States, serving her grandchildren bright red bowls of the stuff in season. I decided to try my own hand at it, buying rhubarb for the first time in my life at the local farmers market. I liked the idea of channeling that unknown relative decades later in a California kitchen.
As it turned out, my mom's taste for rhubarb had waned over the years (perhaps I didn't use enough sugar for her taste), but I was hooked. From simply stewing rhubarb and spooning it generously over slices of pound cake to creating more elaborate desserts such as strawberry-rhubarb hand pies and even incorporating sliced and sauteed rhubarb into a quinoa salad, I couldn't get enough. But really the possibilities are limitless: Substitute rhubarb sprinkled with sugar in your favorite muffin or scone recipe, stir heaping tablespoons of jam into your morning oatmeal, make a gloriously messy and juicy crumble, or cook it down to make a bright pink simple syrup that's lovely in alcoholic or nonalcoholic cocktails.
Though I don't have my great-grandmother's recipe for compote and though we never met, it's clear we share an affinity for the pink-green stalks. If only there was a notebook hidden away somewhere, stained with drips of cooked rhubarb and full of secrets. Lacking that, there is my imagination, my kitchen and a few more months of rhubarb season.
Recipe: Rhubarb-Quinoa Salad
A salad with rhubarb might seem strange — rhubarb is most often used in sweet dishes — but it works surprisingly well here when sauteed with a little honey and olive oil. Salty feta punctuates bowls of fluffy quinoa that contain just a hint of sweetness from the rhubarb. Toasted almonds lend a bit of crunch to keep things interesting.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/4 cups white quinoa, rinsed
6 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, white parts only
5 ribs rhubarb, washed and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
3 to 4 cups baby arugula
1 cup feta cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 teaspoons tahini
Salt and pepper
Rinse the quinoa in three changes of cold water to remove any bitter coating. Put the water in a large pot, salt it and bring to a boil. Add the quinoa and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until just slightly tender.
Drain the quinoa through a sieve and then set the sieve over an inch of simmering water in the same pot. (Make sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of the sieve.) Cover the quinoa with a folded kitchen towel and cover the whole thing with a lid. Steam until the quinoa is tender, fluffy and dry, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, still covered, for another 3 to 5 minutes. Place in a medium bowl and fluff with a fork.
In a frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the honey and stir to combine. Add the scallions and rhubarb and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, until rhubarb is tender. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, tahini and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add the cooled quinoa, the scallions and rhubarb, and the rest of the ingredients; toss and stir gently to coat with the dressing. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Recipe: Strawberry-Rhubarb Hand Pies
If I don't consume these little beauties immediately, I like to pop one or two in the toaster oven to crisp up the crust the next day. Sweet but not too, and with a thick, jammy filling, these hand-held delights have become my go-to summer treat.
Makes about 12 pies
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
3 ribs rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 large egg
3 tablespoons coarse sugar
For the dough, in a large bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder and salt.
Cut in the olive oil and whisk and blend with a fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the beaten egg and whisk into the flour mixture with the fork.
Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork after each addition. Add enough water so the dough sticks together without being crumbly. The dough will be a bit wetter than regular pie dough.
Divide dough into two pieces, flatten into disks about 1-inch thick, wrap well with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour.
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, honey and cornstarch and stir to mix well.
Place over medium heat and cook until thickened and bubbly, stirring frequently, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove from heat, cover and chill along with dough until ready to use.
When ready to assemble the pies, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet (or two if necessary) with parchment paper.
Remove dough from refrigerator one disk at a time. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface a few times.
Roll out, using a little flour to prevent sticking, to about a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into 3 1/2-inch rounds with a large biscuit cutter. (You will get about 6 rounds out of each disk of dough.)
Roll each round out to about 6 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick (or to a width that you prefer).
In a small bowl, beat the egg. Using a pastry brush or your finger, run a line of egg wash along the edge of each piece of dough, going halfway around the circle.
Mound a generous tablespoonful of filling in the center of each piece of dough. Fold dough in half over the filling and press with your fingers to seal. Crimp edges with the tines of a fork.
Transfer pies to the prepared baking sheets. Brush the top of each pie with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Poke a few holes in the top of each pie with a fork or the tip of a sharp knife.
Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is slightly bubbly and oozing out of the holes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving. Serve warm.
Recipe: Rhubarb Scones
These scones make your entire kitchen smell of summer and slow, lazy mornings with sun streaming through your windows and the whole day laid bare ahead for dreaming. That feeling lingers long after the last crumb has been devoured. I used whole wheat pastry flour here exclusively, but if that's not to your taste, either use 3 cups all-purpose flour or substitute 1 1/2 cups all-purpose for 1 1/2 cups of the whole wheat flour. Eat scones warm with good butter and a thick smear of jam.
Makes 12 to 16 scones
6 stalks rhubarb, washed and sliced into 1/4-inch ribs, then cut the ribs in half
2 tablespoons honey
3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar plus more for sprinkling on top
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup cold buttermilk plus 3 tablespoons butter for brushing on top of scones before baking
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the rhubarb in a medium bowl and drizzle with the honey. Let stand for at least 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Cut in butter with a fork and, using the fork and your fingers, whisk and cut in the butter until mixture resembles a coarse meal.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Add to flour mixture all at once, stirring enough to make a soft dough. Fold in the fruit.
Turn out onto a floured board and knead about 15 times. Roll or pat out to a 1-inch thickness.
Cut into 2-inch rounds using a round cutter or cut into 2-by-2-inch squares. (I used a small jam jar, which resulted in 16 scones.) Reshape and roll dough to create more scones with excess scraps. Place on the baking sheet. Brush lightly with the 3 tablespoons of buttermilk and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Place in oven and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Serve warm.
Recipe: Rhubarb Compote
This is a fairly loose recipe, mostly because I firmly believe that we all have different "sweet tastes," and while rhubarb certainly is quite sour when eaten on its own — which is why no one does – I don't think it needs to be overly sugared. It's good to start conservatively, taste and add more as necessary. I used a mix of honey and brown sugar here, and I love the mellow sweetness the honey imparts. Of course, add more or less sugar to appeal to your own taste. Serve compote with slices of cake, on top of ice cream or stirred into yogurt.
Makes 1 1/2 cups
4 rhubarb stalks, leaves removed, with the ribs washed and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup honey
Scant 1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
In a heavy saucepan, toss the rhubarb with the honey, brown sugar, lemon juice and vanilla. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat and stir, making sure the honey and sugar dissolve, for about 5 minutes. Lower the heat and simmer for about 7 minutes until mixture is thick and smooth. Taste occasionally and add a bit more sugar if you wish.
Remove from heat and let cool.
Recipe: A Boozy (Or Not) Rhubarb Cocktail
I came up with this cocktail last spring in my quest to incorporate rhubarb into as many dishes as I could. My husband loves a gin and tonic, so I created my own version using a rhubarb simple syrup that contrasts wonderfully with the sharp bite of the alcohol. I've also given directions for a nonalcoholic drink that I find wonderfully refreshing on hot (and cool) days.
Rhubarb Simple Syrup
Makes about 2 cups
4 stalks rhubarb, chopped
1 cup honey or sugar
1 cup water
In a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, bring rhubarb, honey or sugar, and water to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes until rhubarb is softened. Strain mixture, mashing rhubarb to extract as much liquid from it as possible (discard solids). Allow to cool, and transfer to a jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
The R + G (The Rhubarb + Gin)
Makes 1 serving
2 ounces gin
6 ounces sparkling water
2 ounces rhubarb simple syrup
Juice of 1/2 lime
Mix all ingredients in a tall glass, add ice and garnish with a slice of lime.
The R (The Rhubarb)
Makes 1 serving
Rhubarb simple syrup
Pour the water into a tall glass and stir in as much syrup as you like. Garnish with the lime slice.
About The Author
Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.