What it is: Nicknamed “pie plant,” for its most frequent use, rhubarb is a tartly flavored spring vegetable that’s typically used as a fruit. Only the curved stalks, which resemble celery, are edible; the leaves are toxic. Several species of the genus Rheum can be used for culinary and medicinal purposes, and the plant comes in several colors, but is most commonly bright red or green.
Where it comes from: Historic records indicate rhubarb was cultivated as far back as 2700 B.C. in China, where it was used for its medicinal and purgative qualities. By the time Marco Polo visited China, the plant was already widely used in Europe, thanks to Middle Eastern traders.
In the U.S., top producers are Oregon, Washington and Michigan.
What to do with it: Commonly stewed with sugar to counteract its extreme tartness, rhubarb is typically served as a dessert, often combined with strawberries, which fall into season at the same time. It’s most often made into pies, jam and beverages Rhubarb sauce also makes a fine condiment for meat dishes. At Mana Food Bar in Wicker Park, Chef Jill Barron pickles rhubarb in a Japanese-style as a refreshing appetizer or side dish.
Choose crisp stalks, and stand the stalks in cold water for an hour or so to refresh them before cooking. Before using, trim the ends, discard any leaves and peel off any stringy parts, much as you would with celery.
Mana Food Bar’s rhubarb pickles
Chef Jill Barron
1 pound rhubarb stalks, washed well, cut into 1/4-inch slices on an angle, like celery6 ounces rice vinegar12 ounces water3 teaspoons sugar3 teaspoons salt
Place the rhubarb in a plastic or glass container. In a medium saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a boil. Pour over the rhubarb. Place on top a same-size container filled with enough water to weigh down the rhubarb. Let it stand 3 days, then refrigerate. Makes about 1 pound pickles.