This is something that I would eat every day if I could. But I can’t, because rhubarb is only around for such a short spell in spring. Isn’t that the law of scarcity, that you want something (only because?) there’s so little of it to go around?
Not only are rhubarbs scarce, they’re strange. Let’s dissect for a moment how strange they are. They’re not a fruit but are often prepared like one, they’re celery-like in appearance but taste nothing like them, and they’ve got fibrous, super-juicy stalks that are mindblowingly sour. And that’s the only part of the plant we eat—their leaves are poisonous.
But rhubarb makes up for its initial strangeness with its ease of preparing into something tasty. Truly, it’s one of the easiest things to cook into a thick sauce, and unlike most types of berries, they need no help from lemon juice for more acidity, or pectin for more density.
A little sugar and about 20 minutes of simmering, and that’s all for a sticky-sweet, jammy rhubarb compote. You can spruce it up with some fresh herbs if you like, such as mint—or give them a little heat with some chili pepper flakes and lemon rind to round it out.
And no, rhubarb doesn’t need strawberries to taste good as a dessert. Strawberries are like the old-fashioned shackles of this independent, fully competent ingredient. If you thought the oft-paired berries were necessary for rhubarb pies, syrups or compotes, try liberating them from this tired tradition for once.
It might not have the best color, a greenish-pinkish-tan. But its taste is neon in tartness.
I layered it up with some plain, creamy yogurt with a sprinkle of cinnamony granola for a parfait. Put it on ice cream for dessert, or buttered toast for breakfast. Dab it on a spring lamb chop for dinner. Put it in a jar to keep it for something else. Make it less scarce for a few, fleeting weeks in spring. Miss it for the remainder of the year.
(makes about 1 pint)
1 lb rhubarb stalks, trimmed and chopped
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes, or until the mixture has reached a thick enough consistency to see the bottom of the pan when you stir without the compote immediately filling in the gap. Let cool and chill completely, at least 4 hours. Serve with plain yogurt and granola for a simple parfait.
(for 1 pint, or about 4-6 servings)
1 lb rhubarb: $5.00
1/4 cup sugar: $0.25
Four brownie points: They don’t look like a fruit, but rhubarb stalks provide Vitamin C, plus calcium, potassium and lots of fiber. They’re also a good source of many minerals. Just steer clear of the poisonous leaves.
Eight maple leaves: About as simple and seasonal as it gets. With not much fruit to go around in the spring at the farmers market (except for cold storage-kept apples), it should keep your palate entertained before berries and peaches appear.