Rhubarb is the darling of cobblers, breads, crisps and those mile-high pies. But this tenacious vegetable (technically, that is, though usually referred to as a fruit), one of the season’s first, is just as good savory as sweet.

Before cooking rhubarb, take a taste. (Not the leaves, they’re poisonous.) Try dipping the stalk in sugar, honey or maple syrup, to appreciate its zing. When lightly sweetened, chopped rhubarb is good tossed with spring greens or into a fruit salad. Whirred with butter and a little brown sugar in a food processor, rhubarb butter is terrific dabbed on roasted chicken and grilled fish. It makes a nice tonic, too. Just steep equal parts rhubarb and water in a pitcher overnight. Strain off the rhubarb, sweeten to taste and serve over ice with a splash of vodka or gin.

When cooking rhubarb, use a light hand. It’s terrific roasted, tossed right into the baking dish with chicken or pork. On the stove, simmer it over low heat in a minimal amount of liquid — orange, lemon or juice or water — until it’s just tender, not mushy, so that its texture and zip shine through. Whisk in a little mustard or horseradish and honey for a fine basting sauce.

Rhubarb was originally cultivated in China and worked its way via trade routes through Europe. Beloved by the Brits, it traveled with the early settlers to New England and through the U.S., where it thrives in our northern climates. If you don’t grow rhubarb or don’t have a friend who does, find it at the farmers market and buy it by the bundle.

Look for firm, plump stalks that are not nicked or bruised; the fatter, the juicier. Rhubarb will keep several days in the refrigerator in plastic bags. To freeze rhubarb, wash and cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces. Spread them out on a baking sheet, put in the freezer and leave until completely frozen, then transfer to freezer bags or airtight containers and return to the freezer.

The tangy flavor of rhubarb helps temper the heat of chiles in South of the Border salsas, like the recipe here. You can also add chopped rhubarb to tomato, watermelon or mango salsa recipes for the tang of lemon or lime.

All this is to say, rhubarb doesn’t need much. Let its real flavor shine.

Rhubarb Salsa

Makes about 1 cup.

Note: This is lightly cooked to retain the bold flavors of tangy rhubarb and hot pepper. For a tamer salsa, use a milder Anaheim pepper instead. Serve this with chips, on a turkey burger or over fish tacos. It will keep in a covered container for several days in the refrigerator. From Beth Dooley.

 1 lb. rhubarb, about 5 to 6 medium stalks

 1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and deveined, finely chopped, to taste

• 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

• 2 tbsp. honey or sugar, or to taste

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro

• 1 tbsp. chopped fresh mint

Directions

Trim the stem end of the rhubarb. Cut the rhubarb into 1/4-inch pieces. Place the rhubarb, pepper and lime juice into a saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the rhubarb is just tender. Remove from the heat. Sweeten with honey or sugar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the cilantro and mint. Cool before serving.

Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons:

Calories 30 Fat 0 g Sodium 3 mg

Carbohydrates 7 g Saturated 0 g Total sugars 5 g

Protein 0 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 1 g

Exchanges per serving: ½ carb.

 

Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.