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Puckering up to rhubarb

The vegetable with a pronounced sour flavor is gaining popularity

The boom in farmers’ markets and the revival of regional cuisine that have led to the rediscovery of forgotten foodstuffs like sorghum have also been a boon to rhubarb, which is guaranteed to have foodies everywhere in a constant pucker.

In fact, rhubarb’s pronounced sourness is a factor in its trendiness. Sour flavors have had relatively little play on menus in this country until recently, as fermented and pickled foods and specialty vinegars have picked up steam.

Rhubarb may have the power to polarize — it takes lots of sweetener to make it palatable for many people — but that hasn’t stopped restaurateurs and mixologists from embracing it with gusto.

  • Chutney is typically an acidic, assertive condiment paired with proteins, which makes it a natural application for rhubarb. At Legume in Pittsburgh, green onion and rhubarb chutney is served with Pork T-Bone and Popcorn Grits. Rhubarb chutney has also appeared on a long list of creative condiments offered by Bon Appetit Management Co., right alongside exotica like roasted habanero-orange ketchup. Similarly, in Chicago, Girl and the Goat chef Stephanie Izard concocted a strawberry-rhubarb agrodolce, a play on the traditional Italian sweet-and-sour sauce, which she used to perk up pork chops.

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  • Rhubarb marries well with softer, sweeter flavors, and although it’s pretty much available year round, it comes into its own in springtime and early summer, when it’s used as a pie or pastry filling in combination with strawberries. Restaurants in Sumner, Wash., which dubs itself the “Rhubarb Pie Capital,” go above and beyond humble pie to deliver the goods with treats like homemade rhubarb-pie fudge and strawberry-rhubarb mojitos. Sumner’s Main Street Dairy Freeze offers seasonal strawberry-rhubarb milkshakes and sundaes. In Chicago, Johnny’s Grill dishes up nostalgia and invites diners to submit flavors for the homemade Pop Tarts. One recent result was an Apple-Rhubarb Pop Tart.
  • Smitten Ice Cream in San Francisco delivers an innovative twist on a pastry classic with Rhubarb Crisp, which is the special ice cream flavor for the month of April. On the opposite coast, during the same month, Shake Shack has offered Strawberry Rhubarb Blondie Frozen Custard, while all around the country and throughout the year, IKEA shoppers can indulge in a little Paj Rabarber, or Rhubarb Crumble Tarte.

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  • Of course, it’s de rigueur for trendy ingredients to make the scene in trendy cocktails on trendy bar menus. At Rutledge Cab Co., in Charleston, S.C., rhubarb tea turned up in a champagne-based quaff. Rhubarb has also appeared in a Cosmopolitan at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, N.Y., where the adjacent market sells Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam made from freshly picked strawberries and rhubarb grown by local farmers. A recipe for Tropical Gin & Tonic from Atlanta’s 18.21 Bitters calls for hibiscus syrup and rhubarb liqueur, and Chicago’s Violet Hour, a pioneer in creative mixology, has offered artisanal bitters made with the vegetable.

One last thing: Yes, rhubarb is indeed a vegetable. However, a 1940s court case in New York led to its reclassification in the U.S. as a fruit. This decidedly unscientific decision was driven partly by its frequent use in sweet desserts, and partly by tariff-and-trade considerations of the time.

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