Fruit or vegetable, either way, it adds zest to sweet and savory dishes.
Credit: ullstein bild / Getty

Those who have rhubarb in their gardens no doubt find its emergence both a welcome harbinger of spring and a bit of an intrigue. As the tight, reddish, fistlike ball pushes through the earth, you can’t imagine that leaves will eventually unfold. But they do, starting out yellow, then becoming greener and larger as the stems lengthen. If your plants have been around for a couple of years, there will be enough stalks to harvest for a rhubarb compote or pie. With time, you can pick more generously. Rhubarb plants are long-lived, and there are reports of families picking from the same plants for as long as 20 years.

And, although we think of rhubarb as red, it can be either red or green (red is usually sweeter). Victoria is an heirloom variety that produces mostly green stalks and only the occasional red one. Cooked, the green stalks break down into a subtle pea-green puree, which, to my eyes, is quite pretty.

Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, even though we habitually refer to it as “the first fruit of the season.” At one point, the United States Customs Court ruled that rhubarb was a fruit, as if government can overrule the laws of nature. That’s pretty much how we think of rhubarb, so long as there’s plenty of sugar around. Without a sweetener, rhubarb is bracingly sour. Add to that the fact that the leaves are mildly toxic and you might wonder how people first came to eat such a thing. But if you think about those unfolding leaves and growing stalks appearing after a long winter diet of meat and starch, rhubarb’s tartness could serve as a welcome tonic. Before sugar became widely available (and cheaper) worldwide, rhubarb was cooked in soups and sauces, especially in the chilly northern parts of the world like Siberia and the Himalayas, where it grows prolifically.

Rhubarb’s sourness is flattered by a constellation of other fruits and flavors. Fragrant orange is a constant, and grapefruit’s bittersweet flavor is appealing, as well. Blood oranges are even better, given their acidity, deep color, and more complex flavor. Sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger complement rhubarb’s tang, as does vanilla. Maple syrup and maple sugar are good alternatives to white sugar, having a nutty flavor with more depth.

However, rhubarb figures well in a variety of desserts. In fact, rhubarb is widely known by its nickname, “pie plant.” It can be diced and added to a coffee cake, where it offers a tart little jolt, or cooked into a sweet-sticky jam. Regardless of how it’s stewed, rhubarb eventually disintegrates into a puree, so be prepared for a mushy or, at best, irregular consistency in rhubarb dishes. This might be one reason for the frequent pairing of rhubarb with strawberries and apples―aside from sweetness, they provide volume and texture.

Strawberries are commonly paired with rhubarb, perhaps because we think of them both as the earliest spring fruits―and they are delicious together. But since rhubarb thrives where weather is cool and can persist into summer, consider other options. Last July I bought five pounds of gorgeous, pristine rhubarb stalks in Washington State―just when the blackberries were in season―and the two made a stellar compote.

As for savory uses, rhubarb figures into classic Moroccan tagines and Middle Eastern meat stews. Here I’ve relied on rhubarb’s relationship to sorrel―they’re botanical cousins―and paired it with lentils in a soup. Sorrel does wonderful things for lentils, and so does the tartness of rhubarb as it brightens the flavor of the somber legumes.

Rhubarb 101

Though hothouse rhubarb can be found year-round in some parts of the country, field-grown rhubarb peaks in the spring. Many favor the field-grown plant’s more assertive flavor and deeper color.

Choose thick, firm stalks with no wrinkling or other signs of drying. If there are leaves on the stalks, they should be fresh and unwilted (leaves must be discarded).

Refrigerate fresh rhubarb in a plastic bag for up to three days. You can also chop rhubarb, place in a heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag, and freeze for up to eight months.

Trim and discard any leaves. Wash stalks just before using. Rhubarb is almost always cooked―usually with a good amount of sugar to tame its sour taste, similar to the way cranberries are prepared.