How to use fresh rhubarb this spring and summer

May 4, 2021

As August is to zucchini, May and June are to rhubarb. Neighbors that you didn’t know you had suddenly appear with bushels of the stuff.

In my year-to-years of eating it, the unofficial Last Day to Stomach Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day varies based on the profligacy of that year’s crop — and the consequent neighbors’ offerings — anytime from late May to sometime in July. It’s just the day when we throw down our forks and give up on wee plates of pink.

A plate of rhubarb
Rhubarb is plentiful in Colorado in the months of May and June. Photo: Bill St. John.

My parents had a rhubarb plant that my father hated as if it were a person. He could not dig it out; it came back, taunting him. It grew so large, with its leaves like green elephant ears, that we kids would play with them like a pharaoh’s fan. He finally poured gasoline on it and lit a match. (Do not try this at home, although he did.)

Of course, rhubarb’s most common epiphany is in sweet-tart dishes, its lemony-sour taste offset by something quite sweet, such as its perennial partner, the strawberry. But it also accompanies citrus well. The cook Mark Bittman writes enticingly about a rhubarb-orange soup that he enjoyed in England.

What I have found, of late, is how terrific rhubarb tastes (and, truth be told, feels as a texture) in savory dishes. It breaks down, with only a very short amount of cooking time (fewer than 30 minutes) into a sort of jelly, veins of slippery pieces of slither.

Because its tartness resembles that of sour or tart cherries (such as Montmorency or Morello), rhubarb is a fine candidate for savory dishes for which you’d otherwise choose those same tart cherries, such as sautéed duck breast or a pork roast.

Rhubarb originates in Central Asia, although exactly where is uncertain. The Chinese have cultivated it for millennia as herbal medicine.

Get more great recipes and tips from Bill St. John.

Last year, during rhubarb season, a friend gave me quite a few stalks of his garden’s rhubarb. Not being a fan of rhubarb in sweets, I thought that some Central Asian cooks must have an offering that includes rhubarb.

A plate full of rhubarb
Rhubarb stalks from a neighbor’s garden. Photo: Bill St. John.

And sure enough, the everyday lentil dish of India and Pakistan, dal, can be bolstered nicely and profitably with pieces of rhubarb. For the lentils here, I’d suggest red or yellow over green. There isn’t any “Christmas colors” effect using red rhubarb and green lentils. Both cook out a lot of their color.

About purchasing and consuming rhubarb, most people know the basics. The stalks are edible but rhubarb leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and are consequently toxic. That said, oxalic acid breaks down fairly quickly in the compost pile so discard the leaves with other vegetable and organic matter.

Most of the rhubarb in the United States comes from farms in the Pacific Northwest. Winter freezes give this hearty plant an advantage. (There is Colorado rhubarb also, peaking now through midsummer.) Buy plump stalks with good shine and that are firm to the touch.

Try this rhubarb recipe: Lentil dal with rhubarb

Ingredients

3 tablespoons ghee or neutral cooking oil
1 yellow or white onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed or grated
1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
1 small or 1/2 medium serrano pepper, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 14-ounce can small dice tomatoes
1 and 1/2 cups red, orange, black or yellow lentils
1 and 1/2 cups rhubarb, washed and cut into 1-inch lengths

Directions

Melt the ghee or heat the oil over medium-high heat and, when shimmering, add the onion, letting the onion sweat for 3-4 minutes or until translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and the serrano pepper and mix in, stirring, for another 2-3 minutes. Add all the spices, mixing them in well, and stir so that they will heat up and release their aroma and flavor, 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stirring in, and let the whole mixture bubble, 2-3 minutes.

Add the lentils and the rhubarb and enough water to cover by 2 inches and stir. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then lower the heat to a slow simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, with the cover ajar, for 35-40 minutes, or until the lentils have softened completely and the rhubarb has mostly or completely broken down.

Serve as is, very warm, or with rice or naan or roti, or all three. Garnish with flavored oil and chopped cilantro leaves.

Bill St. John note: Indian grocery stores sell jars of “garlic-ginger paste,” a miracle for any kitchen. Use 1 tablespoon for each clove of garlic stipulated in a recipe calling for both grated or mashed garlic and ginger. For instance, in this recipe, use 2 tablespoons garlic-ginger paste.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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