Although rhubarb can be too tart to eat raw, I remember dipping it into a small pot of sugar or honey and then chewing on it. A sweet treat from childhood. Perhaps if I had known it was a vegetable, I might not have liked it so much.
Botanically, rhubarb is a perennial vegetable. In the 1940s, however, New York State decided that rhubarb should be classified as a fruit because the tariffs and duties were cheaper, and it is still considered to be one in some parts of the United States.
Whichever way you classify it, it is peeping up from the earth right now in my garden, and I can’t wait to cook it. Rhubarb originally came from China, where it is valued as a medicinal plant. In the Middle East, it is often paired with lamb to make khoresh, a subtle stew with tangy overtones. The rhubarb melts into the sauce, impossible to detect but adding such a punch.
Hothouse rhubarb, available now, is less stringy, sweeter and more pink than rhubarb from your garden. When rhubarb stalks thicken to more than five centimetres, they lose that lovely flavour and taste coarse. If you are growing rhubarb, pick it young and freeze for later use. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week, or cut it up and freeze in one layer on baking sheets, bagging it when frozen.
Prepare it by first cutting and discarding the leaves, as they contain oxalic acid, a poison that should never be ingested. It is safe to compost the leaves, but make life easier on yourself by cutting them up first (they can be so big!). Look for pink or cherry-red stalks and avoid ones that are greenish as they are less sweet. (There is a green strain of rhubarb, but it is not frequently grown.) Use a small sharp knife to remove any strings from the stalks. If the stalks are thick, cut them in half lengthwise before continuing with the recipe
The simplest way to prepare rhubarb is to chop it into five-centimetre sections, add a little liquid and ¼ cup to ½ cup sugar per pound, and then cook gently on top of the stove until it loses its shape. One pound of rhubarb is about three cups chopped, which cooks down to about two cups. It can also be roasted at 350 F with just sugar.
Rhubarb has a natural affinity for both strawberries and oranges. Think rhubarb-strawberry crisp or rhubarb-orange compote. I also like to add freshly grated ginger because the flavours are complementary.
Rhubarb fool is a subtle and delicious dessert much loved in Britain. Poach 1 lb rhubarb with 2 tbsp water and ⅓ cup sugar until it falls. Strain the mixture. (Reserve the juice for another recipe; it is delightful when added into a sauce for meat or chicken.) Whip 1 cup whipping cream sweetened with 2 tbsp sugar. When thick, fold in about ½ cup Greek yogurt or Skyr. Combine the rhubarb and the thick cream and dollop into wine glasses or layer it. Top with a few ginger cookie crumbs or chopped mint and you have a quick dessert.
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