In much of the United States, the earliest reliable sign of spring isn't that first robin arriving on your lawn. Instead, it's the ruby stalks and broad leaves of the backyard rhubarb patch leaping to life in the earliest spring sunshine. The juicy stalk is a vegetable, properly speaking, but its bright, tart flavor gives it a fruit-like role in dessert-making.
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The simplest preparation method simply stews the rhubarb, creating a soft and vividly pink filling for pastries or pies. You'll need a splash of water in the bottom of your saucepan, to provide some moisture until the rhubarb's own juices begin to cook out. The colorful stems need only 15 to 20 minutes to cook down. Add sugar once they begin to soften, stirring until the rhubarb collapses into a soft, stringy and slightly thickened texture. It will taste sweeter when cooled, so don't over-sugar it.
Poaching your rhubarb draws on the same basic ingredients -- water, sugar and rhubarb -- but it yields a different result. You'll use more water, simmering it first with the sugar to make a heavy syrup. Additional flavoring ingredients, such as spices and fresh herbs, can be added for specific effects. Once the syrup is ready, drop in your segments of rhubarb stem. Bring the syrup back to a boil, then remove your pot from the heat. Cover it and let the rhubarb cool completely in its syrup. For the best appearance, select slender stems with a good color and a uniform thickness.
Roasting your rhubarb has a similar result, but it's quicker and easier, and has the added benefit of concentrating the rhubarb's flavor rather than sharing it with the syrup. Rinse the rhubarb under cold water, then toss it with sugar and spread it evenly -- in a single layer -- on one or more parchment-lined baking sheets. Roast the rhubarb at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, under a loose cover of foil, for about 15 minutes. Give the pan a good shake, to ensure that the juices find and dissolve any remaining grains of sugar, and roast for another five minutes or so. It should be tender but not mushy.
Those Tart Tarts
Stewed rhubarb isn't the prettiest of dessert fillings, but it packs a powerful flavor. Spoon it over vanilla ice cream, or layer it into a dish with custard and whipped cream, for a simple and fresh dessert. Stewed rhubarb also makes a fine filling for cakes or pastries, either on its own or in its traditional pairing with strawberries. Poached or roasted rhubarb adds the same high-intensity flavor, but with added visual appeal. Use it as a topping or garnish with your favorite desserts and pastries. Or arrange it artfully in tarts and tartlets to take advantage of its garnet beauty.