There is so much more to rhubarb

Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

Ah, rhubarb, so often underutilized. Every year around this time, all across the country, this beautiful vegetable is baked into strawberry rhubarb pies. Don’t you think it’s time to learn a little bit more about this pink, tart goodness and give it the respect it deserves? 

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable, meaning that once planted it will grow on its own for five or more years with little to no upkeep. (And yes, I said a vegetable. This is often argued, due to its common preparations such as in pies, jams and jellies.)

If you do decide to plant your own, don’t try to plant from the seed, as it probably won’t sprout. The best approach is to plant from leftover, borrowed or purchased roots. 

You’ll have to be patient, though, because they require more than a year before you can harvest them. If you are lucky enough to already have some in your yard or garden, the first leaves should just be starting to unfurl now. 

If you can resist the urge to remove the rhubarb too early, you’ll be left with a very strong and reliable plant. This ancient veggie is hardy like a weed and forgiving to those of us who may not have a green thumb (I’m mostly referring to myself; I can barely grow a Chia Pet). The stems are edible and vary in color from pink to red to even a pale green. 

The color won’t affect the flavor, but I still find myself partial to the dark red ones, often picking through the stems at the local grocery stores and farm  markets to find the ones I want. Please keep in mind that only the stems are edible. The leaves have high amounts of a substance called oxalic acid, which is a toxic and potentially deadly poison. If you grow your own at home, be sure to remove the leaves and discard them — and keep them away from your family pets!

Rhubarb is particularly tasty and tart, but unfortunately, lacking in the nutrition department. Its small amounts of potassium and vitamin C make it lackluster as a health food. With this being said, it’s also not necessarily bad for you (unless you plan to coat it in sugar and throw it in a pie). It’s low in calories and is made up of about 95 percent water, similar to celery. Many people assume that because it’s so stringy it must have a lot of fiber. Sadly, this is not the case. 

So why use it? The interesting thing about rhubarb (and the reason that many people hate it), is that turns gelatinous when you cook it. That sounds gross, and sometimes is gross. But in a pie or a nice beef stew, that can be wonderful. It also has a surprisingly spicy flavor if you don’t overwhelm it with sugar. 

Make an effort to buy or cut some rhubarb this spring and try some different recipes. Rhubarb and ginger pair nicely in a variety of treats like muffins, compotes  or even cocktails. One of the easiest ways to enjoy rhubarb is to slow roast it and top it with yogurt. My husband, Tommy Juliano, a well-known pastry chef, provided the recipe below. 


Slow-cooked rhubarb with raspberry granita and
 yogurt ‘mousse’

Preheat your oven to 320 degrees. Place eight stalks of rhubarb in a baking dish. Cover with 1 cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of Campari. Toss to coat the rhubarb evenly. Place in oven and cook for 15 minutes or until soft but not mushy. Cool the rhubarb and reserve the cooking liquid separately.

Combine 1 ½ cups of frozen raspberries, 1 ½ cups of water, and 1 ½ cups of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Mix often to prevent the sugar from burning. Cool the mixture and puree with a blender. If you wish, strain the seeds. 

Combine with the leftover rhubarb cooking liquid. 

Place in a shallow dish and put in the freezer. Every 10-15 minutes, give your mixture a stir and then return it to the freezer. This will give you a granita, a semi-frozen Italian dessert. If you don’t have the time to stir, let your mixture freeze all the way and scrape it with a fork to create a fluffy shaved ice. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together a half cup of heavy cream and a half cup of powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Fold in 1 cup of sheep’s milk yogurt. If you aren’t able to find sheep’s milk, Greek yogurt will do just fine. (Make sure not to use the liquid from the yogurt.) 

To serve: Place your yogurt in a bowl. Spoon some of the granita on top. Garnish with the roasted rhubarb stalks and a drizzle of honey.