In the first 1938 edition of “Larousse Gastronomique,” an encyclopedic tome on gastronomy, editor Prosper Montagné advised treating and cooking rhubarb’s leaves as you would spinach. While the effects may well have proved fatal (high concentrations of oxalic acid render the leaves toxic) and left me wondering, “Did they have recipe testers back then?” Montagné may have been on to something.
For many of us, it’s hard to imagine rhubarb without a generous amount of sugar to take the edge off its sharp taste. As early as the 19th century, English cookbooks have been baking it into desserts, and come each April, the first pop of fuchsia at the market never fails to inspire a flurry of lattice pies, tarts and custards. Lauded as a pastry star alongside the best of fruit, rhubarb is rarely seen for what it truly is — a vegetable.
Indeed, the bright tang that allows rhubarb to be a welcome foil to rich, buttery pastry and custard-based desserts is the same distinct flavor that lends itself to myriad savory preparations. This concept, although unusual for many in the States, is nothing unheard of in other parts of the world. Persians take advantage of its acidity by stirring it into a hearty, herb-packed lamb stew (khoresh), while the Polish roast it with potatoes and mushrooms in a gratin. And the Norwegians even make — albeit slightly sweetened — soup out of it!
But warmer months call for lighter fare, and to finally give rhubarb its savory due, I offer you a springboard of ideas (pun intended) to get you cooking, rather than baking, with the celery-like stalks:
Pickle it. A quick pickle preserves the plant’s refreshing crunch while taming its bite. Bonus: It allows you to infuse rhubarb with whatever flavors you want. Slice it thin or chop it, and throw it in with leafy greens, grain salads or other shaved vegetables for a zesty pop. Or you can serve it alongside charcuterie or even as a topping for a burger, sausage or sandwich as an eye-catching accoutrements.
Sauce it. A sweet-and-sour relish, or sauce, lets the plant’s tart fruitiness shine, especially when paired with pork, chicken, duck or rabbit. To mine, I add fresh ginger and mustard seeds for a kick of heat and spice, apple cider vinegar for pucker, and dark brown sugar to round it all out and depth. You can also cook rhubarb down and turn it into a marinade, a tangy barbecue sauce or even a vinaigrette. Quickly roast it with a touch of sweetener and aromatics, then you can likewise marry it with meat, fish, pasta, and other vegetable dishes.
Shave it. The plant’s piquancy also elevates fish such as trout or halibut, so with that in mind, I shave it to combine with radishes for a salad that can be used to top fillets (hello, taco night!), but again, would go beautifully with any grilled or pan-seared meats.
So, take a page from “Larousse” and allow rhubarb to parade its true vegetal colors. Just please, stick with the stalks and throw away those leaves!
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup thinly shaved rhubarb (about 4 ounces)
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced or shaved radishes (from about 1 bunch)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
1/4 cup hulled, roasted and salted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Whisk together the vinegar, honey and oil in a medium bowl. Add the radish, rhubarb, onion, cilantro and pumpkin seeds, tossing to coat.
Taste and season lightly with salt. Serve right away.
From baker Polina Chesnakova.
Tested by Sophia Nguyen; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 110; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 70 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 3 g.