by Amanda McDougall
It’s red, it’s tart, and it’s a fruit, no, a vegetable… er, it’s a fruit-vegetable?
Botanically speaking, rhubarb is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, but a petiole (precisely, “the slender stalk by which a leaf is attached to the stem; leafstalk” on dictionary.com). Botany aside, common cooking practice – namely its traditional use in sweets from cobblers to compotes – has caused it to be considered a fruit by most. But its vegetal alter ego shouldn’t be neglected.
There’s no doubt that rhubarb has a rather hard-hitting tart flavor, and the tendency is to blitz it with sugar. But why not play up that unusual natural tart flavor rather than mask it? Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago does just that in his dish Rhubarb 7 Different Textures. “We try to highlight the natural tartness of the rhubarb instead of hiding it with a bunch of sugar,” Achatz explains. “The flavors we pair with it need to be equally assertive to act as a counterpoint to the natural acidity and tartness of the rhubarb. That’s why we pair it with strong flavors – bay, lavender, Thai long peppercorn.”
Once past the sugar addiction and possibly considering more flavor combinations other than strawberries, the next step is to get beyond the “rhubarb pie” phase. It’s true, our blushing stalks are stringy and fibrous; not exactly plump and oozing with juice. But, as Achatz points out, it’s not too different from celery: “From a manipulation standpoint, I think of celery. Any way you can manipulate a branch of celery, you can manipulate rhubarb. We marinate ribbons and serve it raw; we juice it, like you would celery for a granita; we clarify the juice for a consommé. And once you cook it down, you open up a whole other group of things you can do. You can puree it, like a pudding; dehydrate it into something crispy; turn it into a leather.”
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with a sweet strawberry-rhubarb pie or a rhubarb-orange compote. These are classics for a good reason – because they are delicious. And pairing these more traditional rhubarb preparations with more innovative accompaniments, like yogurt panna cotta or sorbet, or gelled almond milk, is where the buzz comes from. What’s wrong-headed is thinking that sugar and braising is the only cure for our stringy, mouth-puckering stalks. It’s a two-faced product, but we can love both its sweet fruit side and its sour vegetable side.
So, order that case of rhubarb (it’s prime rhubarb season after all!), take a bite out of a raw stalk, and see what inspiration comes.
* Field rhubarb is available in the spring and part of summer, roughly April through early July, depending on region
* Hothouse rhubarb is typically available year-round but tends to be more pink in color and less robust in flavor than its field-grown variety
* Raw rhubarb has a delicious grassy flavor and celery-like crunch. It can be juiced raw, but the juicer must be cleaned of the stingy fibers often.
* Rhubarb leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and anthraquinone glycosides which are toxic to humans (and many other species)
* Native to Asia and Southeast Russia, it has been used medicinally (as a diuretic and to reduce fever) for thousands of years, but only used for culinary purposes since the 17th or 18th centuries in Europe
* The name rhubarb derives from the Greek words “rha” (A.K.A. the Volga River) and “barbarum” (A.K.A. barbarian – in this case, probably referring to Huns or Mongolians)
* Rhubarb is also known as “pie plant”