Watch the video for this recipe here.
There may be a conspiracy of secrecy around rhubarb. Possible culprits – The Cranberry Lobby? The Pomegranate Council? The Society of Plum Enthusiasts? Rhubarb is a tart and versatile plant that could play the lead in any dish where the aforementioned fruits are featured. But for some unknown reason, it has been relegated exclusively to pie filling.
Passing rhubarb at the market recently, I decided to devise a different way to prepare it. I bought several of the pink and green stalks and did some research. It turns out that rhubarb is a vegetable in the buckwheat family that originally grew in the area around Western China, Tibet, and Siberia. It was recognized centuries ago in Chinese medicine for its high fiber and astringency, and we now know it is high in vitamin C and calcium. For years rhubarb was used in Europe exclusively for its healing properties, and was so valued that in mid-17th century England it cost twice as much as opium. It wasn’t until the last couple of hundred years that rhubarb was used for cooking.
Most of us have tasted rhubarb exclusively in pies or jam, but recently several noted chefs, particularly in Britain, have been serving rhubarb in creative ways. A few ideas I came across are rhubarb syrup or sauce for use in Middle Eastern dishes, as an alternative to pomegranate. Rhubarb’s tartness makes it a good accompaniment to poultry and other proteins, so it can be used like cranberries to make relish. It is also served simply as a refreshing beverage with a distinct sour note.
Being a hot day, I decided to experiment with the latter idea. After boiling and straining the rhubarb, one is left with an almost artificially bright looking pink liquid. It can be sweetened to taste and the possibilities for flavor combinations are endless. To see my choices, read the recipe below. In Britain it is grown in greenhouses and can be purchased all year long from gourmet purveyors. Here it is mostly available at farmer’s markets from early spring through mid summer.
Psst- rhubarb, pass it on!
Time: 40 minutes
10 stalks fresh rhubarb
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup agave syrup
Sparkling water, seltzer, or champagne
1 pint strawberries
½ bunch mint leaves
Rinse the rhubarb stalks and slice them into 2 inch pieces. Put the chopped rhubarb and cinnamon sticks in a stockpot and cover with water. Bring the water and rhubarb to a boil and simmer for 3-4 minutes. The rhubarb will get very soft.
Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth, pressing as much liquid out of the remaining pulp as possible. Discard the cinnamon sticks and cooked rhubarb (or use the cooked rhubarb to add bulk to a strawberry pie) and let the liquid cool.
Once the liquid is cool, stir in the agave. To serve, pour into glasses over ice, and top off with seltzer, sparkling water, or champagne. Garnish with 1 or 2 sliced strawberries and a few mint leaves.
Yield: 8 cups/8 servings