Rhubarb is a curious ingredient, one that many shoppers consider confusing, but it's a rewarding one to use during its short market season. We're in the prime time now: late spring in the northeastern United States (it can be grown and sold into fall, further south). Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but is used most often as a fruit -- sort of the opposite of the tomato -- and looks like red or pink-tinged celery. The leaves can be poisonous, so unlike many other vegetables with edible, often prized, leaves...well, it's here rhubarb's similarity to celery, and other veggies, ends. The stalks were used centuries ago as a curative "spice" along with saffron and other expensive ingestibles, starting in the Far East as part of Chinese curative medicines, and eventually making its way west along the spice routes. It is still considered to have laxative properties and is rarely eaten raw, though it is sometimes enjoyed in Scandinavia when its stalks are in season and most tender, dipped in sugar and eaten out-of-hand.
Still, rhubarb is probably most famous for being paired with its seasonal sister-in-crimson, the strawberry. The beloved strawberry-rhubarb pie is a favorite in America and northern Europe, a true culinary signal to spring. Here's a photo of baby strawberry-rhubarb pies I made for a client's spring baby shower: perfectly pretty and just large enough in single-serving format. And though rhubarb is commonly paired with strawberry, other seasonal sweet berries work just as well with rhubarb's tart zest. And for an interesting twist on highlighting rhubarb's savory side, pickled rhubarb is a wonderful way to use the stalks.
With a brine of three parts water to one part vinegar (and maybe a splash of wine, too -- a dry rose' would work fabulously well!), plus a few tablespoons of salt and a few of sugar, and a handful of spices of your choice (peppercorns and coriander are standard, but cloves and ginger and cardamom and star anise are interesting options, too)...and you've got the perfect liquid in which to soak those stalks and come away with delicious pickled rhubarb in no time. Keep these in the fridge to use in savory salads, to cut through the fat and smoke of early summer's grilled meats, and to dot on gorgeous plates of spring and summer fish dishes, for a bit of acid that pairs perfectly with both raw and seared seafood. Mixed together with other spring ingredients, like fresh peas, greens, seared scallop, and crisp bacon, the final presentation is like May on a plate.
Of course, we can also pair rhubarb with berries in another favorite way: cocktails! For a delicious late spring sangria, simply cook the rhubarb over a low flame with some sugar to make a barely-sweet compote. Use this as a base with other fresh berries and pair with white or rose' wine, cointreau and some club soda for sangria. Or mix with rum, lime, and a little mint, top with soda, and you have a fabulous rhubarb mojito. There are countless iterations for cocktails (rhubarb-arita, anyone?) -- all it takes is a little sugar and a little creativity to make it work. But hurry, the growing (and eating) season is relatively short for fresh rhubarb in these parts. And once you start using the ingredient, you'll be devising new recipes and creating new dishes just to incorporate the "pie fruit" into your spring diet. Of course, there's always the classic. Or, the galette: a free-form tart that, unlike a pie, is uncovered. This allows the rhubarb, in all its ruby glory, to shine through.