Marco Polo was once charged with a singular mission on his Silk Road journeys: bring back to Europe a rhubarb plant from China that could be grown on European ground. At the time, rhubarb was fetching prices well above that of other Silk Road imports like cinnamon and even opium. And even at astronomical prices, European markets could not keep it on the shelves. He eventually found his quarry in China's multi-ethnic Tangut province in northwestern China. And our springtime pies and jams have never been the same since.
The rhubarb we buy at the market today hasn't changed from its Silk Road days. It has thick stalks that resemble long, red or pink celery- with its giant, billowy top leaf fully trimmed off. This is with good reason, as rhubarb greenery is mildly toxic. But the stalk has a very pleasing acidity that adds a tartness and astringent balance to sweet jams, pie fillings, and rich stews. If you've never tried it in your cooking before, we suggest introducing your palate to it the way Scandinavian children do: raw and dipped in sugar, though be prepared for a serious zing. For the more rhubarb-advanced, you can always do as Ruth Reichl recently tweeted, and pair it with monkfish liver.
Rhubarb isn't that easy to come by here in Southern California, as it requires a decent amount of chilling in the winter to do well, and it doesn't have the same cachet as, say, strawberries. Those who love it though, as a recent shopper in front of us did — she graciously gave us a few stalks from her bag — will buy up as much as possible to use in preserves and pies. Rhubarb pairs exceptionally well with those popular strawberries, balancing out the sweet and even helping to preserve and enhance the red color in the cooking process. It also cooks down into a velvety smoothness in compotes and jams, which are pretty fantastic spooned over a few scoops of vanilla ice cream.