Rhubarb "looks and tastes like a fruit, and it acts like a fruit," says Taste of Home managing editor Mark Hagen. "But it's really a vegetable." He also shared recipes for Rhubarbecue, Raspberry-Rhubarb Slab Pie and Blueberry-Rhubarb Breakfast Sauce.
Jen Russell: I want to talk to you about rhubarb. For people who may not be familiar with it, could you describe its flavor profile?
Mark Hagen: It's sort of like a combination of a lovely, sweet, tart fruit. A lot of people identify that there's a slight strawberry taste to it, but definitely a sweet, tart, if you think about that. It actually is not a fruit. It's a vegetable. It's sort of one of those tomato-cucumber things where it looks and tastes like a fruit, and it acts like a fruit, but it's really a vegetable.
JR: Can you talk a little bit about the plant itself?
MH: There are two types of rhubarb. There's the hothouse rhubarb, which is rhubarb that's grown in a hothouse. That's something that you might see across the country in larger grocery stores and things like that. It is perfectly fine, and it tastes delightful.
There's also the field-grown rhubarb, and that's the kind of rhubarb that farmers are growing. You'd buy that at a farmers market. Perhaps you have a patch of rhubarb at your home, or maybe your neighbor has some that they'd like to share with you because it grows so abundantly. Field-grown rhubarb tends to have a little bit more flavor. The stalks are a nice red color.
The hothouse rhubarb isn't quite as flavorful. The stalks vary, as far as are they pink, or are they red? They might be green and speckled with a little pink or red. People actually think it's the color that they're looking for, and it's not. It doesn't really matter how deep that red is, or how light that pink is. The flavor is going to be the same.
What you want to look for are stalks that are nice and crisp; they're free of blemishes. Ideally, you want to look for stalks that aren't at their full maturity. A normal rhubarb stalk is about 1 to 2 inches in diameter. If you're looking for those younger stalks, look for ones that are smaller than 2 inches in diameter. A real good key is if they have the leaves on them, look for smaller leaves. That's a good indication that you're getting a younger stalk, which is going to have just a little bit more flavor, but it's going to be a lot more tender when you're baking with it. You don't have to worry about those tough fibers that you might find in an older stalk of rhubarb.
JR: We eat the stalks, but we don't eat the leaves?
MH: You do not eat the leaves. The leaves have a certain amount of acidity to them that could be toxic. You want to cut those off right away. Keep them away from pets. I think most pets stay away from them, but just get rid of them as soon as you can. Usually, when you're in the grocery store, the leaves will be cut off. I think even a lot of farmers markets remove them for you. If not, you want to remove those leaves.
JR: So many people can be intimidated when it comes to cooking with rhubarb.
MH: I think one of the issues with rhubarb and people being nervous about it is because it has such a small growing period. It's only fresh for early spring. April and May is really its peak period. I think that people are nervous about it because it's not out there year-round, so they don't have as much time to get in the kitchen and play with it.
If people just take the plunge and buy some rhubarb, they'll see how easy it is to work with. I think you should remember that rhubarb itself has some of the characteristics of celery: It's in stalks, it's shaped the same, it's made of a series of fibers, there's a lot of water in rhubarb. If you're not nervous about cooking with celery in stir-fries or what have you, you really shouldn't be nervous about baking with rhubarb.
JR: Rhubarb is also one of those ingredients that really plays well with others, isn't it?
MH: It does. You'll see a lot of recipes that pair it with strawberries, but you're also seeing it with raspberries. Rhubarb usually has to be sweetened because it is quite tart. Honey is very hot, hot, hot right now. We're seeing a lot of recipes where rhubarb is sweetened, maybe not with sugar, but with honey and also with maple syrup. It does really pair very, very well with other fruits, other berries, and then natural sweeteners such as honey.
It's great in pies. My favorite is a good old-fashioned slab pie. It really does pair well in everything -- quick breads, you name it.We're seeing a lot of chutneys right now featuring rhubarb.
You can also take rhubarb in a savory direction. It surprisingly pairs nicely with chicken breast. But we're seeing a lot of people cook with lamb and rhubarb. I also think it does well with pork, to be honest.
If you want to experiment with rhubarb, I would recommend doing a quick rhubarb butter. Simply take one stalk of rhubarb, cut it into bite-size pieces, and simmer that up on the stove-top with 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup of orange juice, a little bit of honey. I would throw in a rosemary sprig, and just simmer that up until that rhubarb is nice and tender. Then all you have to do is drain that, let that rhubarb sit until it's cool and then mix it in with a stick of butter that you softened. Now you have this rhubarb butter that you can add to chicken breast, or it would be fantastic on pork chops. You could even put that on some grilled corn on the cob. It just is an easy, simple, fast way to experiment with the savory side of rhubarb.
Remember you can freeze rhubarb so nicely and easily -- people forget that. You really can use it all year.
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