Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pickled Pink: Rhubarb

There's certainly never a dull moment with rhubarb. Consider these fun facts:

- The leaves of the Rheum Rhebarbarum plant are potentially toxic, but the beautiful red stalks are edible (ooh - danger! intrigue! flirting with death while eating a vegetable!).*

- Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber used to say that players were "havin' a rhubarb" when fights broke out on the field. Not only did the phrase become one of his trademark expressions, but it stuck so well that Ebbets Field was often called the "Rhubarb Patch."

- When film and stage directors need to create a scene with a crowd stirring in the background, extras are often told to shout the word "rhubarb" repeatedly, thus evoking a sense of hubbub and general excitement.

As if that varied and colorful background weren't enough, rhubarb can also make lovely pies, compotes and even wine. My father loved rhubarb cobbler, and my husband considers the first fresh strawberry rhubarb pie a more critical harbinger of summer than Memorial Day. All that's fine, but yesterday I decided to take rhubarb in a different direction, and pickled it.

Well. Why on earth did I wait so long to consider this application? These rhubarb pickles are tender and tangy, with a nice spicy kick at the finish. I think they'll be fabulous with simple grilled meats. I'd also consider using pickled rhubarb to top a baked sweet potato or a green salad with some cheese. It's quite simple to make:

Pickled Rhubarb

4-5 large fresh rhubarb stalks, chopped
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup white sugar (I prefer cane sugar)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1-2 T kosher salt
a pinch of dried cloves
a small (1-2 inch) piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1-4 small dried peppers such as jalapeno or habanero

Combine the vinegar, sugars, salt, cloves and peppers in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, and stir until sugars dissolve. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool for about 5-10 minutes. Place the rhubarb pieces in a large glass jar, and pour the hot liquid over them. Let cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for 24 hours before serving to allow the flavors to mellow. The pickles will keep, refrigerated, for 4-5 days.

A note on the dried peppers: I used two small dried habanero peppers, and the resulting pickles were pretty hot - not blisteringly, tongue-numbingly hot, but hot. Jalapenos would make a milder pickle, and if you really don't want much heat you could omit the peppers altogether or use 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes for brightness without strong heat. The ginger also spices it up a bit, and next time I make these I'm going to use twice as much, I think, to make the flavor a little more complex.

*OK, so you'd have to eat pounds and pounds of bitter rhubarb leaves before you suffered any significant consequences, but it's more fun to say the plant is really dangerous.


  1. What a great idea -- I love all manner of pickle! Bonus: they're pink (as pickled things should be!) but don't involve beets, the one & only food DH won't touch. - kp

  2. Hiya! I found your blog while reading through the comments at Cake Wrecks! I love that blog!! I have always shied away from rhubarb in the past, but after reading your post I think I will try your recipe. Wish me luck!