Learning to Love Rhubarb
Surprise: You don’t always need to pair it with a lot of sugar.
Photo by Naima Van Swol
As someone who loves to write about seasonal food, I kind of dread rhubarb season. Amid the exclamations of “yay rhubarb!” and photos of rhubarb going up and down my Facebook feed, I barely can muster anything beyond puzzlement.
I suppose most of my rhubarb experience has involved a strawberry-rhubarb tandem. Most of the time, the flavor of the strawberries has taken over, or so much sugar has been added to the equation that it’s difficult to discern what contribution the rhubarb makes. Most commercial rhubarb pies add upwards of 1 ½ cups of sugar per pie. That’s at least 9 teaspoons of sugar you are consuming when you eat a slice. I feel like the rhubarb, most of the time, is just a vehicle for sweetener. Not an experience I want.
An informal poll of friends about rhubarb reveals three camps: one that loves it (often in the aforementioned pie form or other sugar-heavy dessert), one that ranges from ambivalence to downright “NO” and one with childhood memories of plucking it and eating it raw.
Raw? Interesting! I never thought of it. So I decided to try it. POW. Sour heaven. As someone who loves sour things, this was a revelation. I sprinkled some sea salt — this is how many cultures confront sour fruit — and it made a perfect foil for the sourness. Adding more sugar makes it cloying. A sprinkle of salt brings out an interesting astringency. So that’s how it tastes. Rhubarb is starting to make sense.
Then I was perusing my Instagram feed and saw my pal Naima’s beautiful photo of rhubarb jam made with vanilla and tea. That sounded amazing. I’ve never met Naima “in real life,” but we have connected in all manner of social media, so I decided to check modesty at the door and ask if I could have some to try. Hooray for digital foodie friends because she said yes. Whoever said social media is a useless waste of time clearly isn’t connecting with the right people.
The rhubarb jam was as beautiful as the photo and tasted just as lovely as it looked. The right balance of sweet and tart. Just 5 cups of sugar are distributed over 4 pints of jam, with just a little smear required to make hot toast taste wonderful. The tea gave it subtle depth. Naima used black tea, and the recipe she based it on (from the Food in Jars blog) called for Earl Grey, which I can imagine would give it quite an interesting undertone.
For rhubarb skeptics (and those who’ve only had it paired with an avalanche of sugar), I think the first step is to taste it raw. Then make something that is as purely rhubarb as possible . . . to celebrate what it has to offer. Then once you have an understanding, translating it into pies and bars will become a more discerning endeavor.
My digital pal Naima Van Swol blogs about two great things — Pittsburgh and food — at Pittsburgh Rules. Follow her on Instagram at @iheartpittsburgh
Rhubarb, Vanilla and Earl Grey Jam
From Food In Jars, with optional modifications
Yield: 4 pints
- 10 cups of chopped rhubarb (approximately 2 ½ pounds of stalks)
- 5 cups sugar
- 1 cup Earl Grey tea or black tea
- 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped or two tsp vanilla extract
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Pinch of salt
- 1 packet liquid pectin (Ball brand is preferred)
1. Sterilize your jars in a large pot of boiling water. If you're making refrigerator jam (it will keep nicely unprocessed in the fridge for 2-3 months), skip this step.
2. In a 5-quart, nonreactive pot, bring the rhubarb, sugar and tea to a boil.
3. Add the vanilla bean, lemon and salt to the pot and let it bubble gently for about 10 minutes (on my stove, this means I set it to medium-high).
4. After 10 minutes have elapsed, add the pectin, stir to combine and let cook for a few more minutes.
5. At this point, dip a spoon in the jam and see how it coats the back of the spoon. If you get a nice, even sheet, the jam is done. You can also taste at this point, to see if you like the balance of flavors. Add a little more lemon juice if you feel it needs additional brightening.
6. Pour into hot jars, wide mouth and rings to remove any spillage and apply lids/rings.
7. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
8. Remove from water and let cool.
Here are more low sugar rhubarb recipes: