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by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary

The very name "rhubarb" sounds forbidding, which is perhaps as it should be, considering the fact that both leaves and roots are deadly poisonous. Nor is it particularly appetizing to know that cooking rhubarb in your pots is a wonderful way to clean out stains.

All this lore seems a bit unfair to a plant whose past extends back to the time of the Greeks, who named it after the barbarians from the Rha river. Eventually rhubarb's popularity spread to Northern Europe. It was cooked as a vegetable and used in omelets, soups, and stews. Because of its high acid content, which could be offset with honey or sugar, rhubarb became most popular as a dessert. It was transformed into delicious compotes, jams, cobblers, sauces, and even wines. In this country rhubarb is cooked and folded into whipped cream, baked in a betty, and combined with other fruits for a relish.

Rhubarb's nickname "the pie plant" reveals its most common usage. In cold climates rhubarb is welcomed enthusiastically as the first sign of spring.

In today's markets, rhubarb selection will range from young pink stalks to green, red, or red-streaked varieties. The dangerous leaves and roots have already been removed, but it's a good idea to check. Rhubarb may not be the most romantic looking edible on earth, but it's a welcome sight in early spring, when everyone's fancy turns to thoughts of pie.

Consumer and Cooking Guide

Market Selection
Two types of rhubarb are available: field-grown (large dark red and green streaked stalks with a tart flavor) and the less tart hothouse rhubarb (small, light pink and almost stringless) Both types should be firm and crisp. We prefer the field-grown variety for its intense flavor and rosy color.

March through June. Peak: May

Refrigerate in plastic wrap, unwashed, for up to one week.

Nutritional Value
Good source of calcium and potassium. 20 calories per cup.

Flavor Enhancers
Cinnamon, nutmeg, berries, apples, pears.

Cooking and Handling
All leaves should be removed from rhubarb as they are poisonous. Strings should not be removed, as they contain the color. Strings will break down during cooking.

Grilled Chicken with Rhubarb Relish
serves 6

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 cups diced rhubarb
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 cup orange juice
1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
2 shallots minced

Olive oil

Place all relish ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring every so often, for about 10 minutes or until mixture thickens. Cool.
Preheat the grill. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Brush with lemon juice and oil. Grill about 6 minutes per side. Serve with rhubarb relish.

Rhubarb-Apple Strudel
serves 12

2 cups sliced rhubarb
3 red Delicious apples
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons tapioca
12 sheets phyllo dough
1/2 cup melted butter or shortening

1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

Combine the filling ingredients, except the tapioca, with 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Simmer about 12 minutes. Stir in the tapioca and let cool. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using 6 sheets of phyllo for each strudel, spread each sheet with butter, sprinkle with nuts and stack.

Spoon half the filling along the long edge of each stack. Fold the edges over to enclose the filling and roll up, jelly-roll fashion. Place on a greased baking sheet. Brush the tops with butter. With a sharp knife cut four slits in each strudel. Bake 25 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing.

Minted Berry-Cherry Rhubarb Compote
serves 6

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup sugar or to taste
1 1/2 pound rhubarb, sliced
1 cup dried, pitted cherries
1 pint raspberries
4 whole fresh mint leaves
6 sprigs fresh mint

In medium saucepan combine water, wine, sugar, rhubarb, and cherries. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 10 minutes or until rhubarb is tender. Remove from heat and stir in raspberries and the 4 mint leaves. Let cool completely. Remove mint leaves and chill. Serve garnished with mint sprigs.


Jeannette & Louise are Bay Area freelance food writers and the authors of several books including Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries and A Good Day for Soup.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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