The cultivation of rhubarb can be traced back over 4,000 years. The Chinese celebrated its medicinal attributes for more than three millennia, Marco Polo brought it back to Venice in the 1500’s, but it would be another three hundred years before rhubarb found its way into the kitchens of Europe.
Rhubarb is often thought of as a fruit, but it is indeed a vegetable, closely related to sorrel and resembling crimson celery. The thick stalks have an unusually strong, tart flavor. Virtually all recipes call for sugar or other sweet combinations to make it work, but rhubarb is more versatile than just pie or jam.
Rhubarb can be stewed until tender, lightly sweetened, then used as a side dish or condiment that goes great with with grilled pork, game or poultry. Or a little extra sweetening transforms it into a flavorful dessert topping.
Rhubarb is about 95% water (a whole cup of it contains only 26 calories) and is rich in Vitamin C, dietary fiber and calcium, contains a good dose of potassium and is naturally low in sodium. It is true that the leaves can be toxic, containing large amounts of oxalic acid, which is why you always see them completely trimmed down to their benign stems by the time they reach market.
Rhubarb is available from late spring well into the summer, and the sweet-tart desserts and accompaniments to be derived from it make perfect partners for summer meals and backyard barbeques.