Rhubarb

Martha Stewart Living, May 2001

Recipes
Cream-Cheese and Mascarpone Cheesecake
Rhubarb and Strawberry Ice Cream
Whole Rhubarb Chutney
Meringue Cupcakes with Stewed Rhubarb and Raisins
Rhubarb and Blackberry Snack Cake
Breakfast Blintzes with Caramelized Rhubarb and Sour Cream
Individual Rhubarb and Raspberry Tartlets

Few people would answer "rhubarb" when asked to name their favorite fruit. It takes a wedge of luscious, sweet rhubarb pie, baked on a gorgeous spring day, to remind us just how much we love the overlooked stalk. The question is beside the point, anyway. Rhubarb is not a fruit. It is a vegetable -- and an ancient one at that, cultivated for medicinal purposes in China as long as 5,000 years ago. As a treatment for stomachaches and fevers, rhubarb was traded alongside tea for centuries, making its way farther around the world with each transaction.

Rhubarb did not make its culinary debut, however, for many more years. The first records of anyone cooking with the vegetable date to England in the 17th century. Unfortunately, the English reckoned that the leaves, which are rough and green and look similar to chard, were the edible part of the plant. Quite the opposite is true. Only the stalks are edible. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, containing a toxic amount of oxalic acid, which causes cramps, nausea, and sometimes death. This belated discovery did little for rhubarb's culinary popularity. The vegetable all but disappeared for the next 200 years, before finally turning up again in the early 19th century, in London's Covent Garden market. A brave soul must have tried cooking the sometimes pink, sometimes scarlet stalk, and discovered its true raison d'etre -- dessert.

Rhubarb is often dubbed the "pie plant," and the stalks, soft and delectable when baked, do make a divine pie filling. But pie is by no means the only way to experience rhubarb. It can also be stewed until it is almost but not quite falling apart. The result is a pink sauce best paired with something rich and decadent -- a thick pudding or vanilla ice cream. Of course, rhubarb can be made into jam, boiled with sugar and put up in jars, and then used to fill a layer cake or to sandwich together butter cookies. Odd as it might seem, rhubarb also works as an accompaniment to savory foods. It is, after all, a vegetable. The clean, somewhat earthy, tart taste does wonders for a robust cut of pork or lamb.

Cooking with rhubarb can be a little tricky because it always needs to be sweetened. This requires adding a fair amount of sugar to most recipes, but not too much. Consider yourself warned: Over-sweetened rhubarb is cloying enough to give you a headache. Sugar should be added with a light touch, a little at a time. The same rule applies to adding fruits and berries to rhubarb. Strawberry and rhubarb is a classic, much-loved combination. Raspberries, currants, blackberries, and stone fruits (peaches and apricots in particular) are also often paired with rhubarb. The vegetable absorbs the flavors of fruits -- and makes them taste even better. But be cautious: It is easy -- and a horrible shame -- to overwhelm the subtle flavor of rhubarb by adding too much fruit to a pie or sauce. After all, rhubarb's charm was lost to us long enough.

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