An exploration into the seemingly overwhelming infatuation with the spring vegetable. With the advent of spring, hordes of chefs and home cooks alike flock to grocery stores and farmers’ markets to stockpile the season’s bounty, such as white asparagus, ramps and rhubarb.
Rhubarb is (most often) a rose-hued vegetable that resembles celery. After being separated from its poisonous leaves, it’s most commonly loaded with sugar and turned into some sweet confection. But the question remains: why?
Rhubarb has a very tart flavor profile that seldom few dare to consume on its own. It only becomes palatable after generously sweetened and/or combined with other ingredients, such as the crowd-pleasing strawberry-rhubarb pie. However, no other ingredient has such high popularity without the ability to stand on its own. That’s akin to the notion that Beyoncé could only be successful as a member of Destiny’s Child.
So, is rhubarb actually worthy of the adoration or is it overhyped, a result of like-chasing foodies and good PR? In my quest for the truth, I consulted with a slew of chefs to get their take on the produce in question.
Joe Flamm of Spiaggia agrees that rhubarb is too acidic on its own, and needs sweetness or fat to balance it. He admits that there are limited savory applications, but it is currently featured on Spiaggia’s dessert menu poached in bubblegum—yes, you read that correctly—with Roman honey cake, buttermilk and spritz syrup. One thing he does mention is that rhubarb is one crop that grows well in the Midwest. “That’s a big thing for us when we consider local sourcing. As Midwestern chefs, it’s always good to get something that actually grows here,” he states.
My own skepticism aside, each of the chefs shared the same reason as to why rhubarb is so beloved (and one that I can get behind): “It is the first sign of spring. After a winter of pears and apples, it is always exciting to get rhubarb in for its color, freshness and bright flavor. Along with seasonal spring ingredients like favas, ramps and peas, rhubarb signals the end of winter,” says Chan.
If rhubarb means the end of cold temperatures and a winter that just won’t end, then consider me a believer.