If you’ve never indulged in rhubarb, this year you should: High in vitamins C and K (which plays an important role in bone health), and a good source of dietary fiber, it provides a pretty nutritious bang for your buck. Rhubarb also is one of nature’s top plant sources of bone-building calcium and is extremely low in calories (less than 30 calories per cup raw) — although you’ll probably end up using at least some sugar (and in some cases a lot of sweetener) when cooking with it.
Rhubarb has long been known as “pie plant” for a reason. Too sour to eat out of hand, it’s typically paired with fruits such as strawberries or raspberries and lots of sugar to make sweet treats such as cakes, pies, breads, ice cream and jam.
But rhubarb lends itself pretty deliciously to savory dishes, too. If you’re the kind of person who loves veggies preserved in brine, you’ll be delighted to learn that rhubarb tastes great pickled.
And don’t forget about cocktails. Tart and sweet, rhubarb makes for a good shrub or simple syrup.
While the veggie can be traced back to ancient China, and by the first century was being imported to Rome and Greece, it was used only for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 1700s that people embraced the entire rhubarb plant in the kitchen. One of its biggest selling points was that the crop could be harvested long before any other fruit, allowing those who had grown tired of baking with raisins and root-cellar apples throughout winter to make fresh “fruit” tarts. By 1807, its use was so common — and dare we say beloved — that a recipe for rhubarb tart turned up in the most popular British cookbook of the early 19th century, “A New System of Domestic Cookery” by English domestic goddess Maria Eliza Rundell.
Because only rhubarb stalks can be eaten (its heart-shaped leaves are poisonous), the veggie comes stripped naked of any greenery. It can be red or green, and prices vary; I found it for just $2.99 a pound (cut into 6-inch pieces and packaged in cellophane), and $5.99 at another spot.
Look for firm, crispy-looking and well-colored stalks — the redder the rhubarb, the sweeter the flesh. Don’t worry about peeling it or having to cook it immediately. Stored in a plastic bag, rhubarb will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three weeks; it also can be cut up and frozen for up to a year. (Freeze individual pieces separately on a tray before placing them in a bag to keep them loose.)