Cooking with Rhubarb

Like an invasion of pink alien celery, rhubarb has been piled high at greenmarkets recently. Don't take its presence for granted, however: Rhubarb and its popular companion strawberries are just about done for the year.

The shiny, vividly colored stalks may seem intimidating to the untrained eye, but, in reality, rhubarb cooks quickly and requires little preparation. There's no need to peel the skin and both the red and greenish-white portions of the stem taste the same—tart and tangy. Joe Nicholson, the CEO of Red Jacket Orchards, grows rhubarb in New York's Finger Lakes region and is a regular presence at the city's greenmarkets. He explained how to pick out the best stalks: "I would be looking for 50 percent red, [but] the size of the stalk is not important."

Deb Perelman, the author of the food blog Smitten Kitchen, adds that the rhubarb should be firm and crisp, like an apple. Firmness can be a secondary concern if the rhubarb is going to be cooked down to a compote, which, she said, takes about 20 minutes.

Rhubarb is on oddity in the vegetable world. "It's funny because it's a vegetable and it comes in with asparagus and all these other vegetables, but it thinks it's a fruit," noted Perelman, who said she's seen it used in chutneys and savory applications, as well.

In addition, Nicholson pointed out that a few wineries near the Finger Lakes also make rhubarb wine. Montezuma Winery produces both a sparkling and flat version, and Torrey Ridge's Summer Delight wine also includes rhubarb.

Perelman explains that rhubarb can add a nice, lemon-like acidity to savory dishes. "For people who try to cook locally, at least in the Northeast, we don't have lemons," explained Perelman. "They don't grow locally. So if you were trying to get that acidity that you might want from a lemon, you could get it from sautéing in some rhubarb."

Below, find one savory recipe Perelman uses with rhubarb.

Couscous With Rhubarb, Asparagus and Walnuts

Adapted by Smitten Kitchen from the New York Times, 5/15/94
Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil scallions, rhubarb, zucchini
  • 1 shallot, peeled and minced
  • 6 asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 medium-size zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut across into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 1/2 cups rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked couscous
  • 2 teaspoons walnut oil
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted, cooled and coarsely chopped

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and cook for 30 seconds, not letting it brown. Add the asparagus and cook for 2 minutes if skinny asparagus, 3 minutes if thicker, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini and rhubarb and cook until crisp tender, about 2 minutes. Toss the scallions into the pan, stir them around and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the couscous in a large bowl and add the vegetable mixture over it. Drizzle with walnut oil, sprinkle with walnuts. Serve immediately.