Crimson rhubarb stalks dipped in white sugar were a favourite springtime snack during my childhood. Pulling the stalk—leaf and all—from the base of the plant produced an audible pop akin to the smack of puckered lips, and we would suck and nibble away on its tangy, tingling tartness.
Botanically speaking, rhubarb, which sprouts from a rhizome, is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, but a petiole—the slender stalk, or leafstalk, by which a leaf is connected to its stem. A member of the buckwheat family and a close relative of the garden sorrel, the same root can produce for up to 15 years, and remains robust surprisingly late into the summer.
Common practice matches this perennial, a herald of spring’s arrival, with the sweeter side of things, classically embedded in pies, crisps, and muffins, and with such traditional pairings as strawberries, oranges, custard, and vanilla.
Its earliest use dates back to 2700 BC, in ancient China, where it was highly prized for its purgative qualities and for the treatment of liver and intestinal ailments. From there it made its way, alongside tea, into Europe via major trading routes, with documented plantings occurring in the early 1600s. After it was presented to Queen Victoria in 1837 as a coronation commemorative, a new, sweeter variety of rhubarb became all the rage in Britain, when farmers discovered that they could generate more succulent crops using a method called “forcing”—cultivating rhubarb in complete darkness under carefully controlled conditions.
Reaching North America and gaining popularity into the 1820s, American rhubarb farmers eventually won the right for their crops to be given the designation of a fruit rather than a vegetable—allowing them to take advantage of lower tax rates and less stringent interstate shipping laws.
Add heat, and rhubarb quickly loses its celerylike structure, breaking down into an aromatic, soft compote that is outstanding with honey, creamy yogurt, and toasted walnuts. Macerating and poaching will help to draw out the juice, and maintain its branchlike structure. Blending the cooked pulp results in an unctuously smooth, rosy-hued sauce that can be dried as fruit leather, added to moisten a fruitcake, folded into a soufflé or parfait, and poured over waffles.
Rhubarb’s vegetable alter ego should not be forgotten, as its acidity lends well to gamey, richer meats such as duck and venison. Try it melded into an Indian-style chutney laced with cardamom and ginger, then slathered on a roasted chicken sandwich or with sharp cheddar and crackers.
So herald the sun, and raise your branch high. You can look forward to a “fruitful” season ahead.
Try the Recipe: Rhubarb, Beet and Pecan Cake