By Gretchen McKay


Tart it up with rhubarb

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Categories : Food
Pickled rhubarb/Larry Roberts

Locally grown veggies are starting to show up in area grocery stores and farmers markets. Many of these early offerings — spinach, baby lettuces, peas, asparagus — are sweet, tender and green.

Rhubarb — that brightly colored, perennial veggie we old-fashioned souls love to fold into pies, cakes and jams — is starting to poke its tart, slim limbs out of the ground, too. To which the rhubarb-lovers among us say, “Hallelujah!”

If you’ve never indulged, this year you should: High in vitamins C and K (which plays an important role in bone health), and a good source of dietary fiber, it provides a pretty nutritious bang for your buck. Rhubarb also is one of nature’s top plant sources of bone-building calcium and is extremely low in calories (less than 30 calories per cup raw) —  though you’ll probably end up using at least some sugar (and in some cases A LOT of sweetener) when cooking with it.

Rhubarb has long been known as “pie plant” for a reason. Too sour to eat out of hand, it’s typically paired with  fruits such as strawberries or raspberries and lots of sugar to make sweet treats such as cakes, pies, breads, ice cream and jam. (If you’d like to learn how, the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange ( on June 6 is throwing a “how to”  rhubarb chutney-canning party.)

But rhubarb lends itself pretty deliciously to savory dishes, too, as the chicken and shrimp recipes below confirm. If you’re the kind of person who loves veggies preserved in brine, you’ll be delighted to learn rhubarb tastes great pickled.

And don’t forget about cocktails. Tart and sweet, rhubarb makes for a good shrub or simple syrup.

While the veggie can be traced back to ancient China, and by the 1st century was being imported to Rome and Greece, it was only used for medicinal purposes; it wasn’t until the 1700s that people embraced the entire rhubarb plant in the kitchen. One of its biggest selling points was that the crop could be harvested long before any other fruit, allowing those who had grown tired of baking with raisins and root-cellar apples throughout winter to make fresh “fruit” tarts. By 1807, its use was so common — and dare we say beloved — that a recipe for rhubarb tart turned up in the most popular British cookbook of the early 19th century, “A New System of Domestic Cookery” by English domestic goddess Maria Eliza Rundell.

Because only rhubarb stalks can be eaten (its heart-shaped leaves are poisonous), the veggie comes stripped naked of any greenery. It can be either red or green, and prices vary; I found it for just $2.99 a pound at Kuhn’s (cut into 6-inch pieces and packaged in cellophane). That was half the price of Giant Eagle, where long, glossy stalks displayed among other greens will set you back $5.99 a pound.

Rhubarb makes a good base for cocktails. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Look for firm, crispy-looking and well-colored stalks — the redder the rhubarb, the sweeter the flesh. Don’t worry about peeling it or having to cook it immediately. Stored in a plastic bag, rhubarb will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three weeks; it also can be cut up and frozen for up to a year. (Freeze individual pieces separately on a tray before placing them in a bag to keep them loose.)

If you’d rather let someone else do the cooking, you’ll find rhubarb in various incarnations at several Pittsburgh restaurants. At Cure, Justin Severino is getting ready to put it on the menu, as part of his new salumi di mare offerings, Cynar-cured fish served with fried artichokes and pickled rhubarb and a broth of rhubarb-infused verjus with cracked coriander seeds. He also is planning a chilled rhubarb soup with sheep’s milk yogurt granita and basil panna cotta with preserved bergamot for dessert.

Dustin Gardner of Casbah also is going the sweet route by offering creme brulee with rhubarb chiboust and balsamic strawberries. Sister restaurant Soba is serving a similar dessert, and the vegetable also figures into fish and noodle dishes.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


Rhubarb Cocktail

PG tested

This sweet-tart, pretty-in-pink drink just tastes like spring. The syrup also can be used to flavor granita, to sweeten tea or lemonade or even as a glaze for chicken. 

For the syrup

3/4 cup sugar

2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and chopped

For the cocktails

Ice cubes

8 ounces vodka (1/2 cup)

32 ounces seltzer (2 cups)

Lemon peel, pith removed, cut into strips

Make rhubarb syrup. Combine sugar and 2 cups water in large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add rhubarb and stir to make sure sugar dissolves. Cover pot, lower heat just a little and boil until rhubarb softens, about 5 minutes. Pull pan off heat and allow rhubarb to cool in covered pot. Mash rhubarb, then strain juice through a double layer of cheesecloth into a small saucepan. bring juice to boil over medium-high heat, then reduce until juice is concentrated and syrupy and you are left with about 2 cups. Taste syrup and adjust sugar if necessary. Cool syrup in pan. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until well chilled.

Make cocktails. Pour a generous tablespoon chilled rhubarb syrup into each of 4 chilled glasses. Add ice, vodka and seltzer to taste. Stir, then serve with a lemon strip in each glass. Refrigerate or freeze the remaining rhubarb syrup.

Serves 4.

— “The Bettlebung Farm Cookbook” by Chris Fischer (Little, Brown; June 2015, $35)

Pineapple Rhubarb Strawberry Conserve

PG tested

This easy rhubarb jam is delicious on biscuits or toast, and can also be served with grilled chicken or pork. I used giant California strawberries but imagine it would be even tastier made with local berries when they come to market in June. I left out the raisins because my dad doesn’t like ’em.

20-ounce can juice-packed crushed pineapple, drained

1½ cups chopped rhubarb (1/4-inch pieces, about 3 stalks)

1½ cups crushed strawberries (about 2 pints whole)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

2-ounce box fruit pectin

1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter

6½ cups granulated sugar

1/2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts

1/3 cup golden raisins

In 8-quart stainless steel stockpot, combine pineapple juice, rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Stir in pectin and add butter. Bring mixture to full rolling boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Add sugar and stir until completely dissolved, then stir in pecans and raisins. Return mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove pot from heat and skim any foam.

Ladle conserve into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles. Wipe jar rims and threads with a clean, damp paper towel. Apply hot lids and screw bands.

Process 4-ounce, 8-ounce and pint jars in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. Remove from water bath canner and let cool for 12 to 24 hours. Check seals and remove screw bands. Store jars in a cool, dry dark place for up to 1 year.

Makes about 7 8-ounce jars.

— “Blue Ribbon Canning” by Linda J. Amendt (Taunton, April 2015, $21.95)

Pickled Rhubarb

PG tested

Tart and tangy, this peppery concoction is great with cheese or charcuterie or anything to which you’re looking to add color and punch. 

2 cups water

1 cup apple-cider vinegar

2/3 cup white-wine vinegar

6 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound rhubarb, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

8 ounces celery, sliced 1/8-inch thick

8 ounces strawberries, thinly sliced

Mix water, vinegars, sugar, salt and pepper in a medium sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. In large bowl, toss rhubarb, celery and strawberries. Pour simmering liquid over vegetables and mix well. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate, uncovered, overnight to let flavors meld before serving. The rhubarb will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Makes 4 cups.

— “Made in America: A Modern Collection of Classic Recipes” by Colby and Megan Garrelts (Andrews McMeel, April 2015, $21.99)

Roasted Rhubarb Salad 

PG tested

Roasting rhubarb preserves its brilliant red color while retaining its shape. It also mellows its tangy bite, which is a good thing for those who might be scared off by the super-tart veggie. “It’s an outstanding alternative to more conventional pears or apples in a crisp salad,” writes Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck in “Fruitful.” They suggest drizzling any extra syrup over ice cream, Greek yogurt or waffles.

8 ounces cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 tablespoons maple syrup, or to taste

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1½ tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoon thinly sliced shallot

2 teaspoons minced tarragon

1 pound watercress, tough stems removed

1/4 cup toasted chopped walnut

3 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Toss together the rhubarb, syrup and 1 teaspoon of oil. Spread mixture on prepared baking sheet and roast until rhubarb is tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove baking sheet from oven and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, salt, shallot and tarragon. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons of oil.

In large bowl, combine watercress, walnuts and rhubarb. Gently toss in goat cheese and dressing.

Serves 6.

— “Fruitful: Four Seasons of Fresh Fruit Recipes” by Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck (Running Press, 2014, $27.50) 

Skillet Chicken with Rhubarb

PG tested

Don’t let the greenish tint of this savory chicken dish dissuade you from trying it — it is so, so good. Good enough, in fact, to serve to company. 

5½-pound whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed

1 teaspoon black pepper, more as needed

5 sprigs thyme, preferably lemon thyme

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 bunch spring onions or scallions, white and light-green stalks thinly sliced (slice and reserve greens for garnish)

2 stalks green garlic, thinly sliced, or 2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup dry white wine

3/4 pound fresh rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch dice (3 cups)

1 tablespoon honey, or to taste

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Pat chicken dry and season with 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Place in a bowl with the thyme sprigs and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Remove thyme from bowl with chicken, reserving thyme. Add chicken pieces to skillet and sear, turning occasionally, until golden brown all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer pieces to a platter.

Reduce heat to medium. Stir in onion (white and light-green parts) and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and reserved thyme; cook 1 minute more. Stir in wine and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of pan. Add rhubarb, honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Return chicken pieces to pot in a single layer. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes for breasts and 20 to 25 minutes for legs and thighs, transferring chicken pieces to a platter as they finish cooking.

Whisk butter into rhubarb sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Spoon sauce over chicken and garnish with sliced onion greens.

Serves 4.

— Melissa Clark, New York Times

Rhubarb-Glazed Shrimp

PG tested

“Don’t stop with shrimp” in this recipe, advise the editors of Sunset. “This sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce promises to be a summer staple, since it’s great on grilled pork chops and chicken, too.” 

1/2 cup chopped rhubarb (preferably red rather than green)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 pound peeled and deveined medium shrimp (36 to 42 per pound)

1 green onion, thinly sliced diagonally

Heat a grill to high (450 to 550 degrees). In a medium saucepan over medium heat, cook rhubarb, ginger, garlic, hoisin, sugar, and 1/4 cup water. When rhubarb starts to break apart, about 3 minutes, whisk in soy sauce and transfer half the glaze to a small bowl.

Thread shrimp onto 4 metal skewers. Brush both sides of shrimp with glaze from pan. Grill shrimp, turning and basting generously as you go, until they’re opaque and grill marks appear, about 8 minutes total.

Transfer to a serving plate and brush with glaze from bowl. Sprinkle with onion. Serve with remaining glaze from bowl on the side.

Serves 6.

— Sunset magazine