11/03/2011 12:42 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012


Despite its wide availability (and the fact that almost no one makes homemade pie anymore), rhubarb is still known primarily as strawberry's sidekick. But there's no law dictating that you have to use rhubarb in desserts -- it is a vegetable, after all, and a versatile one at that.

Rhubarb looks like thick pink celery and, as with celery, you should look for stalks that are taut and crisp. But the two vegetables are actually unrelated, which becomes apparent when you cook them. Unlike celery, which requires quite a bit of cooking to lose its crunch, rhubarb virtually melts away when you apply heat. (The first time you do it you'll be amazed.) Its tendency to turn to silky mush makes rhubarb a great base for sauces and condiments, whether simple jams, tangy chutneys, or elegant sauces to accompany meat or fish.

Rhubarb requires only a little preparation before you cook with it. First, cut off the roots and leaves if they're still attached; they're moderately poisonous. (Poisonous as in, like, don't worry, but don't eat them either.) Then use a paring knife to remove the strings: Make a shallow cut into the end of the stalk to lift up the ends of the strings, then, holding the edges of the strings against the blade with your thumb, pull up with the knife to remove the strings from the entire length of the stalk. After that, all you have to do is roughly chop, and you're ready to go.

Because rhubarb is so tart, all rhubarb sauces -- even savory ones -- require a little sweetener. When you're making jam (and mine is a refrigerator jam recipe, not one that can be kept safely at room temperature) you'll need a fair amount of sugar to balance out the sourness of the rhubarb. In fact, rhubarb and sugar are the only two ingredients here (unless you feel like adding a squeeze of lemon for brightness), so you want to capitalize on both of their flavors.

Rhubarb chutney gets a little more interesting-this one has ginger, onion, mustard seeds, dried chile, and curry powder, in addition to a small amount of sugar to keep things from getting too mouth puckering. It's perfect alongside roast pork or grilled chicken-or served on crackers with a mild, creamy cheese. And if you're really ready to look at rhubarb as more than pie filler, try it stewed with a drizzle of honey and spooned over broiled thin fish fillets (or any other simply seasoned fish dish, for that matter).

Simple Rhubarb Jam
Curried Ginger-Rhubarb Chutney
Broiled Fish Fillets with Rhubarb Honey Sauce