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by Gazette staff

Food Forum

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Rhubarb fine for sauce, butter, jam — and pie

Usually, when we grow a plant for culinary use, we eat the fruit of it. Sometimes, we eat the leaves instead. But for how many plants do we ignore both of those things and eat the stalk?

The list is pretty short: Celery is the most common, though asparagus, Swiss chard and fennel are also stalk vegetables. But one stalk vegetable stands out in a crowd, if only because of its bright red color: Rhubarb.

Rhubarb has been cultivated for thousands of years, starting with the Chinese, who used it for various medicinal purposes. Over the centuries, it was carried by trade routes across the continent to Europe, then across the ocean to America (including by Benjamin Franklin).

Of course, it’s easy to overlook that rhubarb is a vegetable at all — when’s the last time you had a side of rhubarb with your dinner? No, rhubarb is too tart for that sort of thing. So instead, it’s used like a fruit, which gives us an excuse to add some sugar to temper that bite.

Stewed with a bit of sugar, rhubarb chunks can easily be put to good use, starting with the most simple application, rhubarb sauce, which merely requires cooking down the rhubarb with water and sugar until it softens, then mashing it up a bit if needed. Cook it until it thickens into a paste if you’d rather have rhubarb butter to spread on your toast, biscuits or pound cake. Or you could make things a little more complicated by cooking it until soft, mashing it up and adding in some pectin and a little bit of lemon juice to make rhubarb jam; a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg (or both) wouldn’t go amiss here. You could even cook the rhubarb with plenty of water, add sugar and strain it to make rhubarb juice.

The most common use for rhubarb, though, must be as a foil for berries in strawberry-rhubarb pie. The tartness of the rhubarb keeps the strawberries’ sweetness from being too cloying, and when baked inside a buttery, flaky pastry, well, it’s a little slice of heaven (or a big slice, if you have less restraint). It’s no wonder that strawberry-rhubarb is one of the most popular pie flavors. In fact, one nickname for rhubarb is “pie plant.”

Of course, while rhubarb will be coming into season pretty soon, strawberries won’t be in season for another month or two, so you might want to stock up on rhubarb now and freeze it until then. Make sure to get enough for a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, too . . . or maybe some strawberry-rhubarb muffins . . . or, well, the possibilities are nearly endless.

Then again, the berry possibilities are pretty open, too. Why limit yourself to strawberry-rhubarb recipes when you could have raspberry-rhubarb, too, or cherry-rhubarb, or blueberry-rhubarb?
You might want to be careful not to overdo it, though: While it has plenty of culinary uses, rhubarb is also known to be a natural laxative.

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