Besides serving as a tart counterpoint to sweet, spring strawberries in a seasonal pie, what the heck is rhubarb and what else can you do with it?
For starters, it’s actually not a fruit, but a vegetable. Usually one of the first edible plants ready for harvest in mid to late spring, rhubarb has large, triangular leaves and crisp, celery-like stalks (fun fact: food stylists actually dye celery with red coloring when they need a photo of rhubarb in the off-season!) Owing to the number of anthocynins present, a pigment also found in cherries, raspberries and red cabbage, rhubarb can be crimson, speckled pink or light green. And although scarlet-stalked rhubarb is generally more appealing to the eye, color has no effect either way on flavor, texture or aroma.
In addition to being somewhat bitter (rhubarb is rarely consumed raw), many people are actually hesitant to use rhubarb for fear that it’s poisonous. And yes, the leaves — which are generally removed — contain potentially toxic oxalic acid. But unless you plan to consume five pounds of leaves in one sitting, you can put your mind at rest about getting so much as a stomach ache from the tart fruit, so seize the season and eat up!
So how are local restaurants making the most of rhubarb? There’s an exquisite, lattice-topped Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie being offered at Little Pie Company in Hell’s Kitchen. But why not explore rhubarb’s savory side at the Mario Batali’s Spanish tapas spot, Casa Mono? The tart red veggie is uniquely (and deliciously) paired with Fluke Crudo and a Spicy Cashew Puree. And then there’s the modern Nordic restaurant, Acme, which toes the line between sweet and savory with a truly unique dessert — Goat Ice Cream with Rhubarb, Celery and Blue Spruce.
In Brooklyn, tangy rhubarb is the perfect foil for rich plates of charcuterie, both at Dressler, which tops Foie Gras Torchon with Rhubarb and Ginger Chutney, and Colonie, where a Duck Rillette appetizer is paired with Lacquered Rhubarb. What to order for your aperitif? The Rhubarb Ginger Daiquiri, naturally! Rhubarb is currently being served four ways at Jean- Georges, as part of a seasonal dessert tasting. Try Chilled Rhubarb Soup, a Lemon Grass-Rhubarb Creamsicle, Champagne Mango Orange Flower Yogurt with Almond Crumble and Spiced Rhubarb Compote, and an Alsatian Rhubarb Tart with Basil and Rhubarb Puree, all on one plate. You’ll never dismiss rhubarb as a mere pie filling again!
If you’d rather dabble in the kitchen, you can purchase a bushel of bright red, leafless stalks at your local greenmarket or gourmet grocery. Now what? Essentially, it all comes down to stewing. Add 1/2-3/4 cups of sugar for each pound of rhubarb, enough water to cover, a squeeze of lemon juice or a sprinkle of cinnamon if desired, and simmer until soft. From here, you’ll have a compote that can be used in a number of ways. Yes, you can fold in a pint of sliced strawberries and a pinch of cornstarch and make a pie. But why stop there? You can add pectin for a delicious rhubarb jam, or throw your fruit into a blender and puree for an all-purpose sauce (try drizzled over grilled meats, dolloped on ice cream, or frozen into popsicles). But our preferred way to use rhubarb is to strain out all the juices (just use a spoon to push the compote through a fine mesh colander) and combine the reserved liquid with champagne, vodka or gin for the ultimate spring cocktail.
Little Pie Company
424 W. 43rd Street, btwn. 9th and 10th Aves.
52 Irving Place, btwn. 17th and 18th Sts.
9 Great Jones Street, btwn. between Shinbone Aly and Lafayette St.
149 Broadway, btwn. 6th St and Driggs Ave.
127 Atlantic Avenue, btwn. Henry and Clinton Sts.
1 Central Park West, at 61st St.