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Stalking spring

In the early spring this perennial pushes up from the cold ground.

May 21, 2014

Consider rhubarb: long, ribbed stalks and not a seed or rind in sight. This is a vegetable, right? But in 1947, a New York court decided that since it’s used as a fruit, it should be counted as such for the purposes of regulations and duties. Thus, with one wave of a bureaucrat’s hand did the vegetable family lose one of its own.

Hothouse or forced varieties are usually a deep scarlet, but field-grown rhubarb tends to be predominantly green, which I think is a better reflection of the plant’s distinctive vegetal taste. This underlying flavor—described by Alice Waters as “the smell of the earth in the spring”—is easily overwhelmed, and plenty of sweetener is needed to temper the aggressive astringency that is its most pronounced characteristic.

Rheum rhabarbarum is a herbaceous perennial that pushes up through the cold ground in early spring and remains vigorous throughout the summer, often producing beautiful flowers. Though its large, robust leaves are toxic, the roots have been used for medicinal purposes since antiquity, and the stalks have a long culinary history in both savory and sweet dishes. Chunks of sour rhubarb play off the richness of braised lamb in a Persian stew. Thick slices, cloaked in a little honey and roasted just until tender, combine with goat cheese, almonds and greens for an unusual salad. Rhubarb also pairs beautifully with berries and apples—whose inherent sweetness cuts the amount of sugar needed—as well as citrus, ginger and vanilla. I make an Indian-influenced chutney that is perfectly balanced between sweet and savory. Laden with fresh and crystallized ginger and lots of spices, it’s a perfect storm for your tastebuds and a welcome addition to a cheese plate, a grilled pork chop or a bowl of Greek yogurt. Smooth and voluptuous rhubarb curd is a revelation, a tart foil for buttery shortbread or crunchy meringue. A sweetened compote stirred into clouds of whipped cream is all that is required to make the iconic English fool.

And then there’s the justifiably classic combination of rhubarb and strawberries. Liberally sweetened, spiked with orange zest and baked under a shingle of crisp pastry, there’s truly nothing more delicious. My version, made in a large glass pan, has only a top crust, so it’s somewhere between a cobbler and a pie. Served warm from the oven, topped with softly whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it holds the promise of summer as surely as the first firefly.

Rhubarb Chutney

Makes about 2 1/2 cups