Alan Tangren: Make room for rhubarb |

Alan Tangren: Make room for rhubarb

Alan Tangren

Dear Alan: I love making fresh fruit desserts, but the selection at this time of year always seems slim. Any ideas?

Alan: I like to think of rhubarb as the ideal spring fruit. Although clearly a vegetable, we cook it like other tart fruits, with some sugar added to balance its acidity.

Some people think they don’t like rhubarb, but if treated right, it can be a star. Just don’t overcook it!

Rhubarb is most abundant from April through June, and hits its peak around Memorial Day, when the June strawberry harvest is beginning. Strawberries and rhubarb are ideal companions; each makes the other taste better.

Rhubarb grows well in our foothills. The plant itself is very ornamental, and its bright stalks and green leaves make a big statement in edible landscapes.

The outside of the stalks can vary in color from green to pink to red, depending on variety and soil conditions, but all are flavorful. The flesh can be pale green, pink or red.

Before people started eating the stalks, rhubarb was grown for its roots, which were important in ancient Chinese medicine.

Rhubarb leaves contain toxic concentrations of oxalic acid, and must be trimmed completely away before the stalks can be eaten. The cultivation of rhubarb didn’t catch on in Europe until a couple hundred years ago when people gave up trying to cook and eat the leaves!

When plant breeders started to concentrate on the stalks it became popular in England and America, It was first planted in the 1820s in New England, where it soon got the nickname “pie plant”.

At the market choose rhubarb that is firm and juicy, with bright, glossy skin. Medium-size stalks are the best. Very thin or very thick ones may be tough and stringy.

By all means avoid stalks that are limp and flabby. Also be careful toward the end of the season and make sure you are not getting stalks that are fibrous or pithy.

Store rhubarb in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for no more than a few days.

To prepare for cooking, cut off and discard any trace of leaves from the top of the stalk. Rinse the stalks in cold, running water and be careful to rub off any soil that may be present. Wipe with a damp towel and then trim off a bit of the top and bottom of each stalk. Always cook in a non-reactive pan.

Rhubarb pairs well with strawberries, raspberries and citrus. Besides pies, galettes, tarts, crisps and compotes, it makes a refreshing sherbet or ice cream when cooked and puréed.

At Chez Panisse I used to make an open-face galette by tossing long, thin strips of rhubarb with sugar and piling them on a galette dough spread with a thin layer of almondy frangipane.

Rhubarb is also welcome with savory dishes. As a compote it balances rich foods like pork or foie gras. It’s also very nice with fish.

Rhubarb and Grapefruit Marmalade

If you get the urge to make jam this spring, try this easy marmalade.

2 pounds rhubarb cut into ½-inch dice

Zest of 2 grapefruit, chopped fine

Juice of the grapefruit

4 cups sugar

Combine all ingredients and let stand overnight. The next day cook in a non-reactive saucepan over medium high heat until it thickens. Store in the refrigerator for a week or two. Consult a good canning book for long-term storage.

Baked Rhubarb Compote

Serves 4

Baked rhubarb stays in recognizable pieces and doesn’t get slimy. Valencia oranges come into season about the same time as rhubarb and their juice and zest sweeten and temper the rhubarb. Serve this with sweetened cream for dessert or as a side dish with pork chops.

1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into strips 1/3 by 2-inches

1 medium juice orange, such as Valencia

½ cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grate the orange zest into a 9-inch non-reactive baking dish. Squeeze in about 3 Tablespoons of the orange juice.

Add the rhubarb and the sugar and toss to combine. Cover and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the cover and continue baking another 5 or 10 minutes, until just tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at Contact him at

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