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Right on cue in April, spring whets our appetite for the bright flavor of rhubarb. It tastes like the season looks: watery and bright acid-green. It is one of the first plants up in our vegetable gardens, but before it appears there, it starts showing up in the markets thanks to commercial growers. These hothouse-grown red varieties have a milder flavor than the larger field-grown green and red ones, which are more robust and sour.
We look for long, thick, sturdy stalks, with the cut ends showing solid interiors and no signs of pithiness. Rhubarb needs to be refrigerated, or it will go limp and wilt, but a few hours of chilling in the fridge will revive it. Sometimes called "pieplant," rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, but is most often prepared like a fruit. The plants have 18- to 20-inch stalks topped with big, crinkled heart-shaped leaves. Never eat rhubarb leaves, whether cooked or raw; they contain oxalic acid (as do spinach and chard), which can be lethal if ingested in large amounts.
Before modern medicine offered a pill for everything, people looked to nature for health and vitality—food was the best medicine. After a long winter of eating few fresh greens, they counted on rhubarb for a spring tonic. So this country has a long tradition of cultivating rhubarb; a patch of the stuff was a frequent sight in 19th-century American kitchen gardens.
We've both cooked a lot of rhubarb over the years, and together have landed on just the way we like it. After trimming off the ends, we slice the stalks into two-inch pieces and put them in a large baking dish. They release lots of juice as they cook, so we add minimal liquid. What we do add is wine, which contributes more flavor than water. We hold back on the sugar, too, adding just enough to tame the rhubarb's tangy taste. A single split pod of vanilla, meanwhile, offers richness and a sweet floral aroma.
Our Canal House style is to roast rhubarb in the oven, where a gentler heat surrounds the baking dish, rather than cooking it on the stovetop, where it can burn on the bottom. This allows us to avoid stirring it, which would inevitably break up the pieces and turn them to mush. After about 30 minutes, the combination of wine, vanilla, and sugar will have complemented and enhanced rhubarb's sharp, acidic taste. The result is a not-too-sweet compote featuring whole chunks of cooked rhubarb in a delicate syrup that's tart and bright, with plenty of aromatic depth. We then transfer it to a covered container and refrigerate it—or eat it, right then and there.
We make this over and over all spring, eating bowls for breakfast or dessert with yogurt or whipped cream, on top of a slice of old-fashioned pound cake, or with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
No matter how you decide to serve it, make sure to do it now, while you can. Rhubarb season signals the arrival of spring, but its time is all too brief.