Bebop-a-rhuba, spring rhubarb is here! Diner waitresses are hip-checking pie cabinets, kids stop hopscotching, and the milkman is grinning from ear to ear. What’s the deal with rhubarb? Why does it taste like nostalgia? Perhaps it’s the recall of its tart taste and green apple scent that flavors mishmash desserts like a buckle, crumble, or crisp. Or perhaps it’s just that rhubarb’s tannins stimulate our saliva glands. Nurture or nature—you decide.
In ancient times, rhubarb came from the Volga River valley. In ancient Greek, “rhe” means flow or river, and “bárbaros” means barbarian or foreigner. It was prized in China and later Europe for its strong medicinal effects in quelling many digestive ailments. By the 1600s, rhubarb fetched 10 times the price of cinnamon and twice that of opium. The root and the leaf of rhubarb make up the medicine and are extremely toxic, containing high levels of oxalate. It’s amazing anyone ever figured out that the petiole (stem) when cooked was the delicious treat.
We’re seeing rhubarb in all regions right now because it flourishes in the spring. It’s a plant that likes to grow in frost pockets with a fair amount of moisture. Rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, but culturally it is a fruit—so it’s quite content in the fruit and veggie TakeHome boxes.
Rhubarb is super tart raw but reveals itself when cooked with a bit of sweetener (avoid the thicker, greener stalks—they’re more sour and coarse). Simply slice as you might celery, discarding any long strings. Cook with a few tablespoons of water and honey or brown sugar. The amount of sweetener depends on your palette. Rhubarb is excellent in concert with strawberries (of course), pineapple, apples, ginger, and raisins—fruits that will sweeten it. Rhubarb is low in fructose and high in fiber.
Fresh rhubarb can be stored in a bag in your fridge for up to a week. Freezing sliced rhubarb can allow it to last much longer (don’t forget to wash it first!).