Rhubarb makes me weak in the knees,” Odessa Piper wrote me in a recent email. I hear that. Rhubarb is the vegetable that thinks it’s a fruit, which makes it the vegetable of choice for desserts. It’s light, sharp, and sour, like raspberries at the height of summer. That sourness is a natural partner for sweet fruit; it also goes well with richness, especially dairy products.
At this time of year I buy a couple of pounds a week. If I’m lucky, my wife will get to the rhubarb before me. She’ll toss slices with sugar, lay them in a pan, and bake them under a crumble topping made of butter, oats, flour, and brown sugar. The two of us can go through a nine-by-fourteen pan of crisp in two days, especially if there’s crème fraîche to go on the side. But mostly I just wash the stalks, cut them into pieces that fit in a pot, then stew them with the tiniest amount of water and a healthy dose of sugar, taking the pot off the heat when about half the pieces are still recognizable. It goes over yogurt in the morning and vanilla ice cream at night.
The combination of sour rhubarb and sweetness sets off savory richness perfectly, and I’ve used a rhubarb sauce (sometimes with strawberries or cherries, sometimes without) as a complement to roast pork or duck (a.k.a. “the pig with wings”). It’s like a side of applesauce but more flavorful. All this and a beautiful red color too—it’s one reason late spring is so beautiful.