Rhubarb can stir up some pretty strong feelings. Just ask around and you’ll see what I mean. Some people love it, others swear they’ll never eat it. My suspicion is that at least some of those reluctant to try rhubarb either aren’t entirely familiar with it or haven’t discovered its full potential. Rosy-red in color with a unique sweet-tart flavor, rhubarb can give a wonderful seasonal spark to just about any dessert; it’s just a matter of knowing how much sugar to add to balance its tartness and choosing flavor partners that enhance its elusive sweet edge. When the very first stalks of rhubarb show up at the market in early spring, I like to use it in classic desserts that everyone loves, from pies to crumbles, muffins, and compotes.
Botanically, it’s a vegetable. Although it’s usually treated as a fruit and used mainly in desserts, rhubarb is technically a vegetable. The edible parts are the fleshy celery-like stalks. If you grow your own, be aware that the green leaves are poisonous if eaten and need to be removed.
When shopping for rhubarb, look for firm, crisp, unblemished stalks with a bright, intense color. I prefer thinner stalks, as larger ones tend to be overly stringy and tough. Wrap the stalks tightly in plastic and refrigerate them. They should stay crisp for up to five days.
Grow your own
To have your own supply of rhubarb, plant roots in early spring; seeds take much longer to become established. It’s best to wait until the second year after planting to harvest, as the stalks usually aren’t thick and robust enough the first year. Rhubarb is a forgiving plant that can withstand a considerable amount of neglect. In fact, you might want to plant it in a spot where you won’t mind seeing it every year, as it will come back again and again.
You can also freeze sliced or diced rhubarb in plastic bags for up to six months. Frozen rhubarb tends to release more liquid and doesn’t hold its shape as well as fresh rhubarb, so use it where texture is not essential, as in my Cinnamon-Rhubarb Muffins.
To prep rhubarb for cooking, trim off the ends and any leaves still attached. Peel the fibrous exterior only if it’s very tough. Cut rhubarb as you would celery, into slices or small dice, depending on the recipe.