Andrew Coppolino offers options for cooking rhubarb
Whether it's a fruit or a vegetable is perhaps up for culinary debate, but whatever side you take, it's true that rhubarb is a polarizing plant. Some people love the tart quality of this harbinger of early summer; others dislike it intensely.
Though it is used for many desserts, rhubarb is a vegetable, botanically speaking: it's a perennial herb that originated in the temperate regions of Eurasia and which has been a part of cookery, including North American cookery, for hundreds of years.
The plant likely started off the kitchen but for its presumed quality as a medicinal ingredient rather than as a foodstuff – no doubt an irony when you consider that the leaves, rich in oxalic acid, are poisonous and potentially fatally so.
A Shakespearean ingredient
One rhubarb recipe from 1604 includes aquavitae (a clear brandy), mace and cinnamon (as well as arcane ingredients like musk and ambergris) which is boiled down, reduced and allowed to cool before being strained. The medicinal beverage called "Water Imperiall" was used primarily as a laxative, or so the apothecaries of the time believed. In the play Macbeth, the Scottish king asks, "What rhubarb, cyme [a concoction], or what purgative drug, / Would scour these English hence?"
In addition to its use in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, given its late spring harvest, English cooks by the 18th century were using rhubarb for pies when other fruit was out of season. It became a more regular cooking ingredient when new varieties of the red-hued stalks were developed and greenhouse versions were grown that were less tart and sour. Lower sugar prices eventually gave rhubarb a further popularity boost, and between the world wars it experienced a period of heightened interest among cooks.
Tips for cooking with rhubarb
The best rhubarb is freshly picked with the leaves still attached, so remove them just before use. Rhubarb keeps at its peak flavour, refrigerated, for about three days. In recipes, keep cooking liquids to a minimum quantity because it will dilute the colour of the rhubarb. Adding a bit of baking soda to a recipe can help reduce the acidity of your baked rhubarb dish.
Rhubarb has versatility for sweet and savoury applications; for instance, it is often part of Iranian and Afghan stews and is used as you would use spinach.
You can always enjoy making a classic rhubarb and strawberry pie – sometimes the tried and true tastes best – but here are a few suggestions for other preparations brought to you by local chefs and bartenders.
Katie Irwin, Grand Trunk Saloon, Kitchener
Irwin combines rhubarb, some strawberries, sugar and water in a pot and simmers it in her cocktail preparation. "I thought that tequila would go nicely with it, so I added two ounces, an ounce of simple syrup, an ounce of lemon juice and a little bit of egg white. The cocktail has a nice fresh sour flavour."
Darnell Gregg, Fistro Bistro, Cambridge
Gregg calls himself a big fan of rhubarb. "My favourite thing to make, at home or at the restaurant, is fresh cheese, whether it's mascarpone or ricotta. Having fresh rhubarb, roasted after being tossed in a splash of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of sugar, to eat with a fresh cheese and some freshly baked bread just screams spring to me," he says.
Nick Benninger, Marbles and Taco Farm Co., Waterloo
"I like it raw and just dipped in sugar! Or as a 'shrub' for a cocktail. For pickling, cook it low to preserve some texture and crunch. Slice it on the bias and a quarter-inch thick. This cuts through the tough fibres but leaves some structure. Then pour over a pickle brine and let it sit over night."
Lance Edwards, Puddicombe House, New Hamburg
"I love when rhubarb season is upon us," says Edwards. "I try to come up with something different and exciting and more than just rhubarb pie. This year, I'm doing a rhubarb Portuguese-style piri piri chicken with spring slaw and maple-roasted yams."
Chris Barkshire, Blackshop! Restaurant and Wine Bar, Cambridge
"Bake up a rhubarb cardamom pie and serve it with a warm crème Anglaise. Start with your favorite traditional pie crust recipe. I like a traditional covered pie without any sugar in the crust. Serve it shortly after it's out of the oven, but wait long enough so it sets up and then pour the warm Anglaise sauce all over it after you cut it."
"Rhubarb's got a lot of versatility," according to McCowan. "I like to cook it down to make a puree and you can add it to things like syrups or barbecue sauce. We did a rhubarb mustard recently for a ham sandwich that was really good."
Arron Carley, The Bruce Hotel, Stratford
"I like rhubarb poached in a light honey and wild ginger syrup. Then serve it with buttermilk ice cream topped with roasted black walnuts."