Rhubarb starts out so beautiful, its bright color a beacon among the greens of spring. But give it to a cook, and it can wind up mushy and ragged, almost stringy. In old-time lunch counters, wisecracking waitresses nicknamed it “boiled socks.”
In fact, it’s a wisecracking sort of ingredient itself, with a tang like a tart berry, only with a bit of brassy funk. It really needs sweetening -- it’s nearly inedible without some sugar -- and its rowdy flavor benefits from a bit of spice, and brown sugar often goes better with it than white.
There’s a certain challenge to making it the star of a dish. The easy way is to combine it with fruit, one that’s too sweet for its own good. (I’m talking about you, strawberry. In pie, you need rhubarb to save you from your own excessive charm.)
Pairing it with fruit also cuts down on the need for a lot of sugar. Raspberries or pineapple go quite nicely with it, too, and orange and lemon can be good accent flavors.
Our three desserts soundly rise to the rhubarb challenge. Those who poke fun at rhubarb -- or utterly dismiss it -- might be amazed to know it is at the center of each recipe, and surprisingly so.
For our filled cookies, rhubarb partners with strawberries in a jam that will fool the most vegetable-hating kid. As rhubarb cooks, it loses color, but the strawberries keep things bright. Spreading the jam between two cookies (one with a hole cut from the middle) creates a sort of stained-glass look. The cookies themselves have a touch of cardamom, a spice so right with ground almonds.
Rhubarb goes a different route with our marzipan tarts, where it joins raspberries. The strong almond flavor of the marzipan adds an accent to the sweet-tartness of the fruit, and the sugar in the filling can be increased or decreased according to the fruit’s sweetness.
In our coffeecake, rhubarb goes it alone, but you may not be able to tell. Though the rhubarb adds a bit of tartness, the tender sour cream cake has a sweet crumb topping with a touch of nutmeg. Not too tart, not too sweet -- just right.
In grocery stores, you’ll find two varieties of rhubarb, depending on the time of year: hothouse grown, with light pink stalks and yellow leaves; and field grown, with dark red stalks and green leaves. Field grown will show up soon. Hothouse rhubarb is slightly milder in flavor and a bit less stringy.
In either case, look for crisp, brightly colored stalks (only the stalks can be eaten; the leaves are toxic). Wrapped in plastic, they can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days.
One of the simplest recipes for rhubarb is a stew of rhubarb, sugar and water cooked just until the rhubarb is tender and forms a sauce. Try it with buttered toast or ice cream as a surprise garnish. You can be sure there’ll be no wisecracks at all.