How to deal with Rhubarb

how to prepare rhubarb

I love rhubarb.  I love it for it's old fashioned vibe.  I love it for it's color, striking tartness, and even for it's moderate shelf life.  I also love it for showing up so darn early in the spring and sticking around for several months.

And I too was at first intimidated by those long, irregular-shaped, tough magenta stalks at the market.  I actually overheard a conversation at our market up here recently, where a woman who had just bought a weekend house near the Delaware discovered she had huge decades-old rhubarb plants growing on her property.  However she didn't know when it was time to pick them.  Nor did the young woman working the farm stand, so I jumped in with what I knew.  She had been waiting for them to turn red, ripen, to pick.  I explained that some heirloom varieties, have very little red, and the stalks can range from thin to the thicker more uniform we're used to seeing in grocery stores.  I generally go by feel, but you can harvest stalks when between ten and fifteen inches long, avoiding letting them go too long and become tough, dry or woody.

Once you get your rhubarb back you your kitchen, from yard or market, they really are one of the most simple fruit to prepare.  Make sure all traces of the leaves are trimmed off, as they are not edible.  Rhubarb have a bad rap for being stringy, as in celery stringy, but as long as they are cut in small pieces before cooked, the strings will not be a nuisance.  For good measure, or habit, I tend to peel two or three strings off each stalk, from end to end, but not too much, as you are also peeling off any of the great magenta color.

Wash the stalks well and then cut into slices between an half inch and an inch thick.  You can then roast the pieces, throw them in to brighten up a rich stew, or as I do most often, simmer them down to a quick rhubarb puree or sauce.

Pack the rhubarb into a sauce pan or small pot that holds the pieces sort of snugly.  Add enough water to come up about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the slices, and simmer over a medium-low heat, until the rhubarb has broken down and is tender.  Add more water if the mixture seems to be getting to dry or risking burning at all.  When finished you can mash it up a little to have a sauce with more texture, or use a food processor, blender or immersion blender to give you smoother final product.

If you are looking to use the sauce as a topping by itself, add about a tablespoon of sugar per large stalk of rhubarb when simmering down, or another classic way to cut rhubarb's intense sourness is to add at least 1 part strawberries for every 3 parts rhubarb when starting the sauce.  Taste when finished and adjust sweetness if necessary.

Vanilla beans, ginger, orange, cinnamon, almost all berries and apples are all great additions as well.

Make a big batch.  Eat it warm or ice cold.  Spoon it over ice cream, blend it into cream cheese, swirl it in yogurt or oatmeal, drizzle it over a wedge of Stilton or duck or game meats, whisk it into your vinaigrette, blend it with ice for your margarita.  Really, what other fruit, the northeast no less, is quite so versatile?

Fresh Strawberry Pie

So here is another recipe handed down from Catherine the Great.  No, not the Empress of Russia, but my maternal grandmother--one of my first cooking influences, and for whom I am named.

I make this pie at least once a year.  I can't keep myself from it as soon as I see quarts of local strawberries showing up on the tables at the farmers' markets.  It is simple as pie (pun intended).  A great buttery crust, plump, fresh, raw strawberries, and a quick jammy glaze.  Fruit and high quality carbs:  two tastes that should always go together.  It is reminiscent of toast and jam, strawberry short cake, or dare I say...pop tart?

Since the ingredients are so sparse, the quality of the products you use is paramount.  Make a wonderful, flaky, homemade pie crust, use a golden farm-fresh egg and great butter, and above all, use amazing strawberries at the height of their season.  It just won't be that great otherwise.  Also, because the strawberry flavor can vary a lot from sour to sweet, start slowly with the sugar and the lemon juice in the glaze, and adjust as necessary depending on the flavor of the strawberries you are using.


What I’m cooking this weekend.

a dog day of late spring.

Sparkling Panakam: This recipe from Heidi Swanson's (101cookbooks.com) new book Super Natural Every Day, is for a sparkling, spiced Indian beverage, certain to refresh between weeding turns in the gardens.  With lime, ginger cardamom and salt, it is described on Epicurioius.com as "a frosty cold, light, bright ginger beer".  Yes please.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Coffee Cake: This recipe was given to me by a great friend a year ago--a great friend indeed, as it came binder-clipped to a big paper bag full of homegrown rhubarb.  The rhubarb went to very good use, but I still haven't had the chance to try this recipe.  It came with a rave review and I can't wait.

Rhubarb Rosemary “Affogato”

Now I know my Italian affogato-loving purists will find the title of my recipe sacrilegious.  Affogato means "drowned" in Italian, and the classic Affogato dessert is really named affogato al cafe or "drowned in coffee".  It is a shot of hot espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  When I first had it, it was presented in a tall wine glass.  Tall, elegant, bitter and sweet, hot and cold, and melty--heaven in a goblet.

Musing on rhubarb this month, I keep returning to the first and only rhubarb recipe I knew as a kid.  My grandmother would stew down some rhubarb with a little sugar, and strawberries if on hand.  Served warm over vanilla ice cream, it was perfect.  Rhubarb pie a la mode, without the pie.  Ice cream drowned in warm rhubarb sauce.  Can you see where I am going with this?

And so I offer you affogato of the rhubarb variety.  Hot and cold, sour and sweet, tart and creamy--heaven in a goblet too.  The woodsiness of the rosemary cuts the sweetness of rhubarb, and adults-up this compote.  Feel free to add strawberries if you have them around.

And none of this is to say that the original affogato holds any less of a place in my heart.  Try that one immediately as well.

Rosemary Rhubarb Affogato
by Catie Schwalb

makes 1 cup, for 4 servings.

3 cups rhubarb, sliced thin, from about 4-5 stalks, or 3 gigantic stalks
2 small sprigs fresh rosemary
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup water, plus more if too thick
small pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan.  Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, and cook gently until rhubarb softens and breaks down, about 10 minutes.  Add more water, a little at a time, if mixture starts to look too dry.  Stir gently from time to time.

When rhubarb has softened completely, turn off heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes.  Remove rosemary sprigs and discard.

Puree rhubarb sauce in a blender, food processor or with a hand blender, if desired.  Add more water if sauce seems too thick.  Return to pan and heat gently until warm.  Serve warm over vanilla ice cream in a glass or small bowl.


Rick Bishop
Farmers are my heros.  As a chef and food fanatic, they are the mamas and papas, surrogates and midwives of my most precious ingredients.  As an upstate resident, they are the fierce protectors of our land, farming heritage, and heirloom varieties of animals and vegetables.  And since moving upstate, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know many of these amazing neighbors--and then getting to visit them at the market in Union Square.

Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm is one of the rockstars of the Greenmarket, and a friend of ours.  He is adored by the most brilliant of chefs and grows the most magnificent strawberries (Tristar) and heirloom fingerling potatoes, among many other treasures.  Keep an eye out for his table overflowing with ramps in the early spring.

Seriouseats.com did a great short film about Rick  a little while back.  Definitely worth a few minutes of your time, particularly in the doldrums of winter.

I love Alexandra Guarnaschelli's comment about Rick in the video:

"When I buy your potatoes, and I bring them back to the restaurant, and I put them in the oven, I can smell your soil, baking, in the oven...I love your dirt, and he said "It's not dirt, it's soil, and it's a living, breathing thing."


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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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