I had thought rhubarb was one of those vanishing ingredients that had fallen so far out of fashion that nobody cared about it any more. Then five years ago I wrote a story about planting some so I'd have it for cooking, and I found out just how wrong I was.
Reader Emails came flooding in, wanting to know how to grow it, where to buy it and how I liked to cook it. Apparently other people were hearing the same thing, because rhubarb seems to be turning up in lots of places today.
Granted, it's never going to become the equal of the strawberry – anything with that definite a personality is never going to beat out Miss Congeniality. But for those of us who love it, that tart, nearly astringent flavor is rhubarb's best quality.
The funny thing about rhubarb is how dramatically it changes when cooked (and cook it you must, unless you want to suffer from a serious case of the puckers -- which I sometimes do, but that's another story). What looks like it might be stringy, hard and bitter becomes silken and spicy.
And as delicious as plain rhubarb is, combine it with its seasonal co-conspirator the strawberry and you've got something really special. The rhubarb supplies the flavor backbone cooked strawberries lack. Even better, the acidity that makes the rhubarb so distinctive actually works to preserve the color in strawberries. Cook a berry by itself and it'll turn a bruised color of purple; cook it with rhubarb and it'll stay bright red.
It turns out even Miss Congeniality loves rhubarb.
How to choose: Look for rhubarb that is firm and crisp. Check the cut ends to make sure they're not dried out or softening. Reject any rhubarb with soft spots. Though we tend to think of rhubarb as being bright red, be aware that there are green varieties as well, and that even the red types might show a green blush at either end.
How to store: Keep rhubarb in the refrigerator sealed in a plastic bag.
How to prepare: Trim the cut ends and any leaves that remain – rhubarb leaves are high in oxalic acid, which is poisonous (though you'd have to eat quite a bit to become ill, it could upset your tummy). Rhubarb is sometimes stringy and some cooks prefer to peel it. That's really not necessary, though -- if the stalks seem a little stringy, I prefer to simply cut it into smaller pieces.