In the first 1938 edition of “Larousse Gastronomique,” an encyclopedic tome on gastronomy, editor Prosper Montagné advised treating and cooking rhubarb’s leaves as you would spinach. While the effects may well have proved fatal (high concentrations of oxalic acid render the leaves toxic) and left me wondering, “Did they have recipe testers back then?” Montagné may have been on to something.
For many of us, it’s hard to imagine rhubarb without a generous amount of sugar to take the edge off its sharp taste. As early as the 19th century, English cookbooks have been baking it into desserts, and come each April, the first pop of fuchsia at the market never fails to inspire a flurry of lattice pies, tarts and custards. Lauded as a pastry star alongside the best of fruit, rhubarb is rarely seen for what it truly is: a vegetable.
Indeed, the bright tang that allows rhubarb to be a welcome foil to rich, buttery pastry and custard-based desserts is the same distinct flavor that lends itself to myriad savory preparations. This concept, although unusual for many in the United States, is nothing unheard of in other parts of the world.
To finally give rhubarb its savory due, I offer these ideas to get you cooking, rather than baking, with the celery-like stalks this spring:
Pickle it: A quick pickle preserves the plant’s refreshing crunch while taming its bite. Bonus: It allows you to infuse rhubarb with whatever flavors you want. Slice it thin or chop it, and throw it in with leafy greens, grain salads or other shaved vegetables for a zesty pop. Or you can serve it alongside charcuterie or even as a topping for a burger, sausage or sandwich as an eye-catching accoutrement.
Sauce it: A sweet-and-sour relish, or sauce, lets the plant’s tart fruitiness shine, especially when paired with pork, chicken, duck or rabbit. To mine, I add fresh ginger and mustard seeds for a kick of heat and spice, apple cider vinegar for pucker, and dark brown sugar for depth and to round it all out. You can also cook rhubarb down and turn it into a marinade, a tangy barbecue sauce or even a vinaigrette. Quickly roast it with a touch of sweetener and aromatics, then you can likewise marry it with meat, fish, pasta and other vegetable dishes.
Shave it: The plant’s piquancy also elevates fish, such as trout or halibut, so with that in mind, I shave it to combine with radishes for a salad that can be used to top fillets, but again, it would go beautifully with any grilled or pan-seared meats.