Woe unto she who grabs a rhubarb stalk and shoves it in her mouth. Though rosy-hued and visually seductive, rhubarb presents with toxic leaves and a flavor, when raw and unadorned, that puckers the palate. But kiss these stalks with heat, or macerate them in a little sugar and acid, and watch the rough, fibrous vegetable transform into something altogether more intriguing and complex.
With its category-crossing applications (it’s a vegetable that often moonlights as a fruit), rhubarb is known as the “pie plant.” The reason is simple. Despite its versatility, it shows up 9 times out of 10 paired with strawberries under a tender pastry hood. While there’s nothing wrong with that (at all), it’s missing a much broader mark – that rhubarb’s sour punch is a fine foil for many other fruits. It’s lovely with cherries, apricots, and even apples, if you’re smart enough to freeze your spring haul and pull it out when fall arrives.
Rhubarb can also be shaved thin and tossed with vinaigrette, then spooned over spring greens for a unique (and uniquely beautiful) salad. The flavor will be sharp and acidic, but with today’s tastes embracing the tart in the form of kraut, kimchi, and pickles, rhubarb’s sour punch is more invigorating than off-putting.
One of the easiest applications for rhubarb is to simply cut the stalks into rough chunks and bake them with sugar, spices, and a bit of lemon until they collapse. This creates an oven compote that, when cool, is a gorgeous topping for yogurt, ice cream, or even a bowl of fresh ricotta. Dress it up further by sprinkling it with something crunchy in a contrasting hue; buttery pistachios are lovely, as are toasted pepitas. And alcohol never hurts either – a splash of Cointeau or triple sec will liven up your compote or rhubarb jam, and a tuft of orange zest will echo the citrus notes nicely.
And since we’re talking about alcohol, let it be known that rhubarb makes a classy, alluring, and altogether springy Bellini, before the more traditional peaches have come into season. Sour stalks yield a bubbly, pink elixir whose main component – a super-simple puree of rhubarb, lemon peel, vanilla, sugar, and a splash of water – can be made up to a week ahead. Pair it with champagne (or club soda) and voila! A soirée or brunch transformed by rhubarb’s unparalleled beauty and flavor, with festive effervescence in spades.
Look for these Rhubarb Bellinis in Spoonful’s Spring Issue: Love Affairs!