In April, I walked into the bakery and saw rhubarb piled high on the work bench, waiting to be added to a strawberry-rhubarb crisp. At the time, the weather had turned spring-like but we were still several weeks away from our own local rhubarb season. Still, that first sight of rhubarb was a lovely indicator that warm weather was on its way. This week, our produce manager, Julio, told me that we have just started getting in local rhubarb to the shop!
Rhubarb reminds me of home – my mom makes a fantastic strawberry-rhubarb pie and, as a baker myself, the bellwether rhubarb sets my mind racing with ideas for what will soon be a profusion of fruits to choose from for crisps, breads or crostatas…
Since my first blush of rhubarb excitement, I was inspired to learn a little more about this vegetable (yes, it is technically a vegetable!). My go-to book for this type of information is “Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini” by Elizabeth Schneider; a great resource both for chefs and those interested in history and trivia. According to Schneider, the rhubarb plant originated in Western China, Tibet, Mongolia and the surrounding areas. Its first use was primarily medicinal but, gradually, it made its way onto the table – in eastern cultures, it found its way into beverages and stews. As sugar became more widely available, rhubarb grew in popularity and in the Americas it became a classic pie ingredient. Rhubarb was only introduced to these shores in the late 18th century in Maine. It was disseminated throughout New England pretty quickly but it was another century before it made the trans-continental journey to California.
Today, only about a quarter of rhubarb grown in the United States is sold fresh – the remainder is frozen. When you do find it fresh (as we have it here in the shop) look for stalks that are flat, an indicator of freshness. Size does not seem to correlate with flavor but depth of color is a good indicator – the darker red the stalks are, the sweeter the rhubarb will be. Also important – try to get stalks that have been pulled, not cut, when harvested as they will remain fresher longer. If you happen to get stalks with the leaves still attached – do not eat the leaves either cooked or raw as they are poisonous. Aside from the traditional pie, rhubarb pairs well with rich meats or fish. I also like poaching it and serving it with ice cream! Yum!