Rhubarb –  A Strange Food Love

sorbet_closeup_editThis is one of my fondest childhood food memories: as early as May, we’d go and cut the reddest and largest rhubarb stalks in the backyard. The gigantic leaves would go straight to the compost, where they could be flattened out to cover the pile of decaying organic matter. Not that that made a big difference in terms of composting, but it was part of the ritual that ended with one of the greatest summer treats I know. To this day, I still love virtually anything that has rhubarb in it. Like this sorbet (made without an ice cream maker)…

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Rhubarb Harvest. (By RhubarbFarmer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Rhubarb is one of those greens (I guess technically it’s a green) that you will be asked to identify at the Whole Foods check out. People across Eurasia have eaten it in one shape or another for millennia and although it’s fairly well known and loved across Europe and especially in Britain, rhubarb has a persistent air of strangeness to it. Obviously, you can’t just bite into the acidic raw stalks. Its leaves are poisonous to eat and as grotesk in shape as is the plant’s name in sound. According to one etymological explanation, the word rhubarb is derived from the Scythian name for the river Volga – Rha. The plants supposedly grow wild on the banks of this stream in the far East of Europe.

I went on a trip to the Volga last summer – if only it had occurred to be back then to look for wild rhubarb…

All strangeness aside, rhubarb represents for me domestic bliss and the springtime family table. Topped off with a layer of meringue, rhubarb cake brings together complementary textures and weds sweetness with tartness. Suddenly, the most alien plant from our garden becomes the most emotionally nurturing food.

Once I finally got my hands on the first rhubarb of the year in New York, I immediately thought of that cake. However, it felt like a big commitment to make this cake. (As usual – who do I feed a whole cake to?) But then I thought of another, very recent, culinary memory. In March, I went to the Bay Area and had dinner at Chez Panisse with a friend. Needless to say it was excellent, but the most amazing thing was the  grapefruit (I think?) sorbet they served for dessert – two heavenly scoops with a perfect meringue.

I had decided to not even attempt making it at home, because it would never be as good back in Berkeley. But with the rhubarb stalks in hand I changed my mind. The combination of rhubarb (rather than grapefruit) and meringue would echo my favorite cake from back home and I figured the mnemonic value of that combination might console me over the fact that I will never be able to replicate that magical dessert from Chez Panisse.


I went down my usual rabbit hole of internet research and surprisingly there are plenty of recipes for rhubarb sorbet out there – who would have thought? The New York Times has one, so does Epicurious. The only obstacle was that they all tell you to use that ice cream maker – because who doesn’t have one? I for once refuse to get one. No more kitchen clutter – as long as we live in New York at least. So I had to work around it.

The recipes are all pretty much the same: one pound of rhubarb, cleaned and cut into pieces, one cup of sugar and one cup of water, maybe two tbsp of lemon juice. I added a piece of cinnamon, because that’s a traditional flavor combination to me.

Put it all in a pot and boil for 10 minutes. The rhubarb will be soft by then. Remove the cinnamon and blend with the immersion blender until there are absolutely no pieces left.

I let it cool on the counter top, then a little more in the fridge. And then I put it in a bowl and stuck the bowl into the freezer. Every 15 min or so I whisked vigorously, until there were no big ice crystals left et voilà – perfect sorbet without that annoying ice cream maker.




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