Rhubarb is one of the great pleasures of spring, with its rosy color and earthy tang. It is found in most supermarkets this time of year, although it is available frozen anytime. Also known as pieplant, rhubarb is a perennial that is native to central and northern Asia, where it has been grown for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. It was brought to Europe by Marco Polo and has been eaten as a food since the 18th century.
Rhubarb has an identity crisis it is a vegetable (it does look like a crimson celery plant), but it is always used as a fruit. Its very tart succulent stalks can be poached or pureed with sugar to make delicious pie fillings, and are often combined with strawberries and raspberries in jams, chutneys sorbets or compotes. But it is delicious in savory dishes as well, especially with meat and duck.
Thin red, crisp stalks have the best texture. If stalks are floppy, they are not fresh. Wrap rhubarb in plastic and refrigerate for up to 1 to 2 weeks. Both raw and cooked rhubarb freeze well.
When ready to cook, wash and trim both ends of the stalks and discard the inedible leaves. Rhubarb is very tart and requires considerable sweetening. As with other relatively acidic foods like tomatoes, do not cook in aluminum pots to avoid an unpleasant taste.
Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-author of Mmmmiami: Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere.