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Rhubarb’s arrival means spring is here

Wed., May 21, 2014, midnight

It wasn’t until I saw the rhubarb in my backyard, bravely poking their stalks out of the ground and uncurling their tightly fisted leaves, that I believed spring had truly come.

Returning year after year, rhubarb marks the beginning of our growing season, and its emergence after our long winters is a welcome harbinger of spring. Like most perennials, rhubarb actually needs the dormancy of winter to stimulate spring growth. Once planted, rhubarb can live 10 or even 20 years, serving as a faithful reminder that beneath winter’s snowy layer, life still exists.

Somehow seeing those red stalks each year brings me such joy, and I know that not too far behind will come the spring onions, strawberries and peas. A cool season crop, rhubarb is available locally at farmers markets and most grocery stores April through June. It grows best in the temperate climates of the Northwest, with most of the commercial production taking place in Washington and Oregon. 

Rhubarb originated more than 2,000 years ago in northern China, where its roots were harvested for medicinal uses and it was thought to heal a myriad of digestive maladies. At one time, rhubarb was the most widely used plant in Chinese medicine. It remains highly utilized and regarded.

But it wasn’t until the 1800s that rhubarb began being cultivated for culinary use here in America, and it wasn’t for another hundred years that it became popular, due to the increasing availability of sugar. 

It seems a little sweetness is key to making rhubarb palatable. Rhubarb’s inherent sourness, when eaten raw, shockingly wakes up the palate. It tastes of unripe apples with hints of berry, and something earthy and herbaceous like fresh green grass.

Because of this intense tartness, rhubarb is usually combined with a fair amount of sugar and other fruits in order to bring it down a notch. Rhubarb, contrary to popular belief, is actually a vegetable, rather than a fruit, a close relative of garden sorrel.

Those of you who have experienced the tartness of sorrel will intuitively understand their relatedness. Warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger complement and temper rhubarb’s tang, as does vanilla and sugar. Maple syrup, brown rice syrup and agave are good alternatives to white sugar, adding depth and nuttiness.

We often see strawberries paired with rhubarb, perhaps because they are the earliest of spring fruits with their growing seasons overlapping – and no wonder, they are delicious together. I would take a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie any day of the week. The flavor combination to me is perfection.

But for the sake of adventure, let’s consider other options.

For savory uses, add rhubarb to Moroccan tagines or beef or lamb stews to impart a a tangy brightness. It also does wonderful things to the somberness of lentils and beans, enlivening and adding zest. Or prepare simply, by tossing 1-inch pieces of rhubarb with maple syrup, salt, pepper and olive oil, then roasting them in a 400-degree oven until just fork tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Serve these pieces as a tangy side to richer mains like seared duck or pork. Just be careful not to overcook, as it does have a tendency to get unpleasantly mushy if roasted too long.

For a zesty pop, add rhubarb to muffins, scones, breads or cakes. In this recipe for Rhubarb Upside Down Cake, almond meal acts as a substitute for white flour, and the combination of almond, rhubarb and cardamom pairs well together, while the caramelized rhubarb, both tart and sweet, melts in your mouth. 

Slice rhubarb raw, and macerate it with a little sugar, adding fresh sliced strawberries and mint if you like, and serve atop a stack of whole grain pancakes, Greek yogurt, waffles or French toast. If you have an overabundant supply of rhubarb growing in your yard, try pickling it, adding sliced onions, or garlic and whole spices like pink peppercorns, coriander seeds, mustard or even star anise. Make sure your vinegar base is a little sweeter than you would normally make it. To pump up the color, add a slice of raw beet. 

When combined with homemade whole-grain mustard, stewed rhubarb can be a flavorful condiment to pork chops and cured meats. On sandwiches, it turns plain old turkey into something unexpected and memorable. And you will get the added benefit of getting to call it Rhubarb Mostarda, like the Italians do. 

For mixologists, an easy way to infuse rhubarb into cocktails is to make a rhubarb shrub, a vinegar-based fruit syrup of sorts, that mellows and harmonizes with age yet increases in flavor and complexity over time. Add a little rhubarb shrub into your cocktail shaker with a base spirit, maybe some bitters or an herb, and perhaps a complimentary liqueur, and see what spring inspired concoction you can come up with. Or, simply add a tablespoon or two of rhubarb shrub to sparking water over ice, for a refreshing, non-alcoholic rhubarb sparkler.

Or cook rhubarb down into a sticky sweet jam. This savory balsamic onion and rhubarb “jam” goes well with cured meats and cheeses, making a unique addition to a cheese board, a condiment for braised meats or simply dolloped on bruschetta with a creamy base of burrata or warmed goat cheese. Even though rhubarb’s leaves are considered toxic and inedible, they shouldn’t be considered a threat in the garden.

Yes, you can touch them.

It would take consuming a ridiculous amount of leaves (more than 10 pounds) to cause any real damage. So, while I don’t recommend making a salad out of them, don’t let them scare you.

When selecting rhubarb, make sure to choose firm, crisp stalks. Oversized stalks are can be tough and stringy, so choose those that are neither too thin nor too thick.  Rhubarb will keep for one to two weeks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, and if the stalks do happen to get soft, simple rehydrate them in a bowl of ice cold water before use. You can also cut and freeze them for later use. 

Upside Down Rhubarb Cake

4 tablespoons butter

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 1 1/2 pounds )

1 1/4 cups sugar, divided

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract divided


4 eggs, separated, room temperature

Zest from one lemon

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1 1/2 cups finely ground almond flour or meal

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon white or cider vinegar

Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a 9-inch, cast iron skillet, brushing the sides with the melted butter. Add rhubarb, ¾ cups sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and a pinch of salt, and stir for 2 minutes, just until combined and sugar has dissolved. Turn heat off. Do not continue to cook rhubarb. (You can either bake the cake right in the same skillet, or transfer to a parchment lined and buttered 9-inch spring form pan.)

In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with lemon zest, cardamom and ¼ cup sugar, until creamy and sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk almond flour, a pinch of salt and baking powder until combined. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and stir to incorporate. You will have a very thick heavy batter at this point.

In a stand mixer, whip egg whites on medium high speed, and once you see bubbles, add a pinch of salt and vinegar. Whip until egg whites have formed soft peaks, then add remaining sugar a little at a time, whipping until medium stiff peaks form. Turn speed to down to medium low and begin spooning in the flour-egg yolk batter, a heaping spoonful at a time, into the egg whites, until it is all combined, scraping downs sides as necessary.

Pour batter over rhubarb in the skillet (or in a springform pan) and place in a preheated oven, for 25 to 30 minutes. While baking, make sure to have ready a cake platter, cake stand, plate or board or whatever you plan to flip the cake onto. At 25 minutes, check for doneness by inserting a toothpick or skewer into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it is done. If not, bake a bit longer. Pull from the oven and immediately place a cake platter or cake stand over the skillet, and invert, gently tapping the bottom of the skillet so it releases. (If using a springform pan, let cool before removing sides and flipping.) Let cake cool 10 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with vanilla ice cream or on its own. This cake is especially good the next day.

Rhubarb Shrub

2 cups rhubarb, diced into 1/4-inch pieces

1 cup sugar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

Mix rhubarb and sugar in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for two days, stirring every 8 to 12 hours. Strain the liquid, pressing down on solids. Mix the rhubarb syrup with apple cider vinegar and pour into sealable jar and refrigerate. After a week, flavors will meld and harmonize. Add to cocktails or sparkling water. 

Balsamic Onion and Rhubarb Jam

1/2 large red onion, sliced thin

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups rhubarb diced into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

Over medium high heat, sauté onions in olive oil for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn heat to low and let simmer, stirring occasionally until very tender, about 30 minutes. Add rhubarb and balsamic vinegar, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Let simmer until balsamic has reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in sugar, salt and pepper and turn heat to low and continue simmering until rhubarb is just tender. Turn off heat.

Rhubarb Mostarda

1 1/4 cup mustard seeds, divided

1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional) 

3 cups rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup sugar

1 2/3 cup apple cider vinegar 

1/2 teaspoon salt

Using a coffee grinder or spice mill, grind  ¾ cup mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds into a fine powder, leaving ½ cup of the mustard seeds whole. Put everything in a wide pot and cook over medium heat until the rhubarb is very soft. Taste, adjust sugar and salt to your liking. Pour into a clean jar and refrigerate. 

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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