I don’t know how I’ve come to love rhubarb, but I do, so there. My obsession for the tangy-sweet stuff surfaced during adulthood and kinda makes sense, especially culturally.
Rhubarb didn’t grow in any of my childhood backyards and you can bet my Honduran family wasn’t sipping exotic Rhubarb Margaritas during our summer house parties. We chugged homemade sangria made with gallon jugs of red wine and piles of sliced apples, orange wedges, and pineapple. We inhaled corn tortillas filled with thinly-sliced flank steak and lemon. And, my Colombian tia made a colorful berry-studded sheet cake every July as if it was her patriotic obligation and most definitely mine to stuff my rosy, chubby cheeks with all the icing.
Rhubarb was not missed because we didn’t know we should miss it and we were definitely too full on our own cuisine to care. The very few American delicacies that had worked their way into our repertoire were way more accessible: locally-made Italian-American mozzarella was cut finger-thick and served salted or with a side of fried plantains; frozen string beans were quickly boiled, seasoned, and plopped alongside our take on orange rice; and, hot dogs were revered rolled up in a flour tortilla, spread with generic domestic mustard and ketchup.
I first learned about rhubarb’s very existence about 15 years ago, when my husband and I bought our current home. Ever enthusiastic to make it mine, all mine, the house soon had a big garden carved in behind the barn, a place I could develop my own gardening skills and grow the veggies I wanted to eat everyday, mainly tomatoes and eggplant because Eggplant Parmesan, folks. Rhubarb, however, never earned a spot in those raised beds. I’d stare at the plant in the seed catalogs thinking it looked like a weird weed, similar to the Japanese knot weed that invades our New England grass every single summer and that overtook our backyard when I was a teen living in Georgia.
(photo by James Ransom)
Then, someone gave me a few rhubarb stalks and advised me to chew on them. It struck me as strange, like something others did with sugar cane while on vacation in warmer climates. The taste was tart and bright, and then slightly sweet, and then wonderful. I immediately dropped chopped rhubarb pieces into vodka and, about a week later, a very special cordial appeared, something unlike all the strong, syrupy stuff on my booze shelf. I didn’t make jam with my first stock of rhubarb; I made an infused spirit. That says a lot about me, I’m sure. My rhubarb cordial actually won a food community award five years ago, go figure.
But after that first lip-smacking twang, conquering all things rhubarb became my next preoccupation. I sourced and sampled every incarnation of rhubarb, and tackled so many recipes for rhubarb jam, jelly, chutney, pickles, and butter. I consistently preferred the tartest recipes that used less added sugar and way more rhubarb.
In between all the cordial sipping and jam eating, I learned some facts like rhubarb is a cool weather perennial vegetable that’s used like a fruit and originated in Asia, spread across Northern Europe, and finally hit New England in the 1800s. The leaves are generally poisonous, so the stalks are the prize. And based on my very unofficial experience, I can say that the British seem to love their rhubarb, slipping it into preserves, desserts, and even meaty dishes as it provides that hard-to-put-your-finger-on acidity to a sweet something or rich dish, like in my Brit friend Sean’s Tea-Smoked Duck Breast and Pickled Rhubarb.
(photo by Sean St. John and styled by Francis Daykin)
In sharp contrast (pardon the pun), rhubarb is nothing like the cloying fruits familiar to my family. It’s the very contradiction to sugary pineapple, papaya, and passion fruit, and all the other produce I grew up around. Since the Brits look to have the most experience with my favorite vegetable (or just the sort in a language I can understand), I sort of admired them for finding such goodness in something so sour and herbaceous. In fact, I attached myself to rhubarb in a culturally-strange and perhaps dreamy way.
Rhubarb was, is, the greener grass across the way, the cure to my candied childhood, the way to rightsize an adolescence filled with rich foods and highly caloric produce that blushed my cheeks and kept me wanting more. It also appeared to be a luxury – though that’s probably not really true, only an illusion of my less-than upbringing. It was simply something we didn’t have and because of that I think I want it all the time.
This is not a sad note but rather my true love story with rhubarb. I believe rhubarb was my gateway produce to entirely new foods that yanked me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to be ready, waiting, available to all the other new foods and cuisines I would taste in my adult years. I grew up on easy foods, the sort of stuff that fills your belly with straight-on comfort. Rhubarb is complex, needs to be teased and bothered to bring out its true loveliness, and is definitely the sort of vegetable or fruit or whatever that will show so much glory (and love) if you simply give it a little something.
Before spring comes to a close, I encourage you to do like the Europeans do and dip a rhubarb stalk in sugar and then into your mouth. Suck out that sour flavor and gnaw on the fibrous meat. If you don’t fall in love, that’s okay. I’m happy to keep all the rhubarb for me, me, me. But just in case and to celebrate the end of the season, I’ve compiled a list of 25 beautiful baked recipes (in no particular order) that make rhubarb the star. Rhubarb has done so much for me, so I’m only happy to return the favor.
Rhubarb Fritters (photo by Ashley Rodriguez)
Rhubarb Cardamom Two-Bite Pies (photo by Katherine Hysmith)
Rhubarb Rose Cake (photo by Lauren Volvo)
Rhubarb and Raspberry Crumb Bars (photo by Samantha Seneviratne)
Rhubarb Vanilla Friands (photo by Thanh Berthou)
Rosemary Ricotta Blintzes with Rhubarb and Strawberries (photo by Molly Yeh)
Rhubarb Galette with Orange Frangipane (photo by Laura Davidson)
Rhubarb Bars (photo by Sarah Fennel)
Rhubarb Custard Tea Cake (photo by Thanh Berthou)
(photo by Kristy Gardner)
Before you go…
* I love rhubarb in cocktails but if you’d like a mocktail version, make this bright rhubarb shrub (without the tequila).
* I created a board filled with rhubarb recipes, just in case you want more, more, more. If you have some rhubarb favorites, just leave them in the comments below. Thanks!
Eat Boutique was an award-winning shop and story-driven recipe site created by Maggie Battista – an author, business guide and alignment seeker. After hosting retail markets for 25,000+ guests, Maggie now supports entrepreneurs as they create values-based businesses through We Are Magic Studio. Follow Maggie Battista on Instagram.