This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles.

Tasting raw rhubarb is a lot like being smacked in the face with a baseball. Neither experience is easily forgotten.

That's why the mouth-puckering tartness is often buried beneath behemoth amounts of sugar in rhubarb desserts. But with finesse, rhubarb's piquant flavor can be tamed rather than lost.

Though it typically masquerades as a fruit, rhubarb is technically a vegetable.

HOW TO SELECT: Rhubarb stalks range in color from ruby red to pale green, depending on the variety and age. Typically, the greener the stalk, the more sour and stringy the rhubarb. A harbinger of spring, bright red, field-grown stalks are usually available from April through June, while pale pink hothouse stalks are available almost year-round.

The brilliant stalks are rarely found still attached to the monstrously wide leaves, which are toxic. (Though some would insist the stalk itself is tart enough to be called toxic, it is not; in some Asian cultures, the stalk is regarded instead as medicinal.)

Whatever its color, rhubarb should have firm, crisp stalks with no brown blemishes or soft spots. Withered stalks are beyond their prime. The width of the stalk matters little, though it is preferable to select stalks of equal size.

One pound of untrimmed rhubarb stalks should yield about four cups of chopped rhubarb.

HOW TO STORE: Wrap the stalks tightly in plastic and refrigerate for no more than three days. Refrain from trimming the ends or slicing the rhubarb until just prior to cooking.

HOW TO TRIM: Use a sharp knife to trim about 1/2 inch from each end, allowing any fibrous strings to pull away from the stalk with the trimmed end. Further peeling is unnecessary if the rhubarb is to be cooked; the tough strings soften considerably with heating.

HOW TO PREPARE: It takes an exact science to parlay puckery, stringy stalks into silky slices of sweet but not saccharin rhubarb that barely hint of sour. Therefore, a recipe is a must.

Old-fashioned standbys such as pie rightly hold a place in rhubarb eaters' repertoires. But there are more enlightening and daring alternatives.

Rhubarb can hold its own on the savory side of dinner. As a simple pan sauce, it lends a tart counterpoint to rich roast game or the spring's first run of salmon. All it takes is few stalks, a slight amount of sugar and a shot of sherry or a squeeze of lemon.

Sweet tooths may still gravitate to the last course for their rhubarb fix whether as a chilled soup or a composed tart whose crisp cornmeal crust sits beneath a citrus zest-flecked mascarpone filling smothered with sweetly simmered rhubarb. Too much trouble? Try it with a shot of vodka, as in the Devil's Rhubarb.

Chilled Rhubarb Soup

(6 to 8 servings)

Such a complex flavor from such a simple soup. From "The Last Course" by Claudia Fleming and Melissa Clark (Random House, 2001).

61/2 cups sliced, trimmed rhubarb (about 21/2 pounds untrimmed)

11/2 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into about 12 quarter-size slices

11/2 cups simple syrup*

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the rhubarb, ginger and simple syrup to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to break down the rhubarb, for 10 to 15 minutes. Force the soup through a medium (not fine) sieve, discarding the solids.

Pour the soup into a bowl and set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 3 hours and up to 2 days. Serve cold.

*Note: To make simple syrup, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups sugar and 11/2 cups water to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Simmer for 1 minute, then turn off the heat and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate for as long as several weeks.

Per serving (based on 8): 280 calories, 1 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

The Devil's Rhubarb

(4 servings)

Serve as a pre-dinner aperitif, a post-dinner digestif or an anytime curiosity. From "Kitchen of Light" by Andreas Viestad (Artisan, 2003).

8 thin stalks very young rhubarb, trimmed and peeled

About 1/2 cup granulated sugar

About 2/3 cup very cold vodka

Peel the rhubarb so that only the juicy interior remains.

Place the sugar in a small, shallow bowl.

Pour the vodka into shot glasses. Dip the rhubarb in the sugar and take small bites and immediately sip the vodka between bites to clean the palate.

Per serving: 177 calories, 1 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 5 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

-- Renee Schettler