Rhubarb, America’s sweettart

Old-fashioned garden staple adapts to plenty of modern dishes

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Sam Wiseman associates rhubarb with nostalgia.

“It’s such an old-fashioned crop,” she says. “A lot of people remember it from their youth, seeing their grandmothers grow it in the garden.”

What’s more, rhubarb plants can have a long life. “Some people say that they’re still growing their grandmother’s rhubarb,” Wiseman says.

For her part, Wiseman started growing rhubarb a few years ago after more and more customers asked for it. She has operated Sunflower Savannah Farm in Beaufort, Mo., for 12 years.

Thanks to a warm spring, Wiseman’s rhubarb got an early start this season.

“Then it just stalled,” she says. But fresh rhubarb has also begun to appear in supermarkets.

In general, color isn’t an indicator of ripeness or sweetness. Rhubarb comes in varieties ranging from green to deep red, and some is speckled or has graduations of color.

You should purchase rhubarb that’s firm and has relatively shiny skin. Avoid stalks whose ends show signs of drying out.

In the kitchen, the classic partner for tart rhubarb is, of course, strawberry. Rhubarb also pairs well with other sweet ingredients.

But don’t limit yourself: Rhubarb can flavor side dishes, perk up sauces for meat or fish, and even be pickled for use in a colorful salad.

Rhubarb Gratin with Vinegar and Sugar

Yield: 4 side-dish servings.

Adapted from “Vegetables,” by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press, 2012).

5 stalks rhubarb, cut into 3-inch lengths

¼ cup sherry vinegar

1½ tablespoons granulated sugar

¼ cup water

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the rhubarb in a baking dish just large enough to hold it in a single layer. Add vinegar, sprinkle with sugar and add water. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bake until the liquids form a glaze on the bottom of the baking dish, about 30 minutes. (If the baking dish bakes dry, add a little more water, vinegar or both.) Serve hot.

Per serving: 45 calories; no fat; 0.5g protein; 12g carbohydrate; 5g sugar; 1g fiber; 10mg sodium; 55mg calcium.

Sloe Rhubarb

Yield: 4 servings.

Adapted from “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard,” by Nigel Slater (American edition, Ten Speed Press, 2012).

1½ pounds rhubarb stalks

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup sloe, damson or elderberry gin (see note)

2 tablespoons water

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the rhubarb into short lengths, trimming off the top and bottom of each stalk and pulling off any strings. Put the rhubarb into an enameled, glass or stainless steel oven-safe baking dish. (Don’t use aluminum.)

Stir together sugar, gin and water; pour over the fruit. Bake until tender, 40 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally with the juices.

Let cool slightly and serve warm, or refrigerate and serve cold.

Note: We tested this recipe using Illinois-made North Shore Distillery Eldergin Liqueur.

Per serving: 90 calories; no fat; 1g protein; 6g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 2g fiber; 5mg sodium; 110mg calcium.

Rhubarb Fool with Cardamom Cream and Pistachios

Yield: 4 servings.

Adapted from “A Girl and Her Pig,” by April Bloomfield (Ecco, 2012).

cardamom cream:

6 green cardamom pods

3 tablespoons superfine sugar

1 cup crème fraîche

1 cup heavy cream

rhubarb:

1¼ pounds rhubarb, tops and bottoms trimmed, any leaves removed, sliced crosswise into ¾-inch pieces

¼ cup superfine sugar

½ cup dry white wine

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

2½ teaspoons rose water

For serving:

½ cup shelled salted roasted pistachios

Cardamom cream: Using the flat of a chef’s knife, smash the cardamom pods one by one. Discard the greenish husks. Pound the cardamom seeds to a powder in a mortar, then add 3 tablespoons sugar and pound briefly.

Put crème fraîche and heavy cream in a large mixing bowl; stir in the cardamom mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Rhubarb: Toss rhubarb and ¼ cup sugar together in a bowl. Transfer to a medium pot; add wine. Use a knife to scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pot; discard the pod.

Bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally and gently, until the liquid is a little creamy and the rhubarb is tender but the pieces are still largely intact, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely, then stir in the rose water.

Fool: With a whisk or a handheld electric mixer, whip the cream mixture until it’s fluffy and full with semi-stiff peaks. Spoon some of the rhubarb mixture into the bottom of a large bowl or the bottoms of four 8-ounce glass serving dishes or glasses. Top with a layer of cream; sprinkle on some pistachios. Repeat layers until you’ve used everything, finishing with a layer of rhubarb. Cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour.

Per serving: 635 calories; 52g fat; 29g saturated fat; 165mg cholesterol; 7g protein; 36g carbohydrate; 25g sugar; 3g fiber; 125mg sodium; 200mg calcium.

Spiced Rhubarb Sauce for Pork

Yield: 2 servings.

Adapted from “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard,” by Nigel Slater (American edition, Ten Speed Press, 2012).

3 to 4 medium stalks rhubarb (about 14 ounces total)

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Juice and grated zest (colored portion of peel) of 1 small orange

Salt

Ground cinnamon

Trim rhubarb stalks and remove any leaves. Cut stalks into 1-inch chunks. Place into a stainless steel or enameled pan; add sugar, orange juice and orange zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the fruit has softened but hasn’t turned to mush, 8 to 10 minutes.

Transfer to a food processor or blender; process until smooth. Season to taste with salt and cinnamon. Serve with a roasted uncured pork leg or a pork shoulder roast.

Note: This recipe can be doubled or tripled.

Per serving: 100 calories; no fat; 2g protein; 24g carbohydrate; 17g sugar; 3g fiber; 5mg sodium; 140mg calcium.