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Colorful rhubarb adds a tart punch

If you’ve never indulged in rhubarb, this year you should: High in vitamins C and K (which plays an important role in bone health), and a good source of dietary fiber, it provides a pretty nutritious bang for your buck. Rhubarb also is one of nature’s top plant sources of bone-building calcium and is extremely low in calories (less than 30 calories per cup raw) – though you’ll probably end up using at least some sugar (and in some cases A LOT of sweetener) when cooking with it.

Rhubarb has long been known as “pie plant” for a reason. Too sour to eat out of hand, it’s typically paired with fruits such as strawberries or raspberries and lots of sugar to make sweet treats such as cakes, pies, breads, ice cream and jam.

But if you’re the kind of person who loves veggies preserved in brine, you’ll be delighted to learn rhubarb tastes great pickled.

And don’t forget about cocktails. Tart and sweet, rhubarb makes for a good shrub or simple syrup.

Because only rhubarb stalks can be eaten (its heart-shaped leaves are poisonous), the veggie comes stripped naked of any greenery.

Look for firm, crispy-looking and well-colored stalks – the redder the rhubarb, the sweeter the flesh. Don’t worry about peeling it or having to cook it immediately. Stored in a plastic bag, rhubarb will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to three weeks; it also can be cut up and frozen for up to a year. (Freeze individual pieces separately on a tray before placing them in a bag to keep them loose.)

PICKLED RHUBARB

Makes 4 cups

2 cups water

1 cup apple-cider vinegar

2/3 cup white-wine vinegar

6 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound rhubarb, peeled and sliced into ½-inch pieces

8 ounces celery, sliced 1/8-inch thick

8 ounces strawberries, thinly sliced

Mix water, vinegars, sugar, salt and pepper in a medium sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. In large bowl, toss rhubarb, celery and strawberries. Pour simmering liquid over vegetables and mix well. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate, uncovered, overnight to let flavors meld before serving. The rhubarb will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

COOK’S NOTE: Tart and tangy, this peppery concoction is great with cheese or charcuterie or anything to which you’re looking to add color and punch.

– “Made in America: A Modern Collection of Classic Recipes” by Colby and Megan Garrelts (Andrews McMeel, April 2015, $21.99), tested by the Post-Gazette

RHUBARB COCKTAIL

Serves 4

THE SYRUP

¾ cup sugar

2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and chopped

This sweet-tart, pretty-in-pink rhubarb cocktail tastes just like spring.

This sweet-tart, pretty-in-pink rhubarb cocktail tastes just like spring.

the cocktails

Ice cubes

8 ounces vodka (1 cup)

32 ounces seltzer (4 cups)

Lemon peel, pith removed, cut into strips

Make rhubarb syrup. Combine sugar and 2 cups water in large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add rhubarb and stir to make sure sugar dissolves. Cover pot, lower heat just a little and boil until rhubarb softens, about 5 minutes. Pull pan off heat and allow rhubarb to cool in covered pot. Mash rhubarb, then strain juice through a double layer of cheesecloth into a small saucepan. Bring juice to boil over medium-high heat, then reduce until juice is concentrated and syrupy. Taste syrup and adjust sugar if necessary. Cool syrup in pan. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until well chilled.

Make cocktails. Pour a generous tablespoon chilled rhubarb syrup into each of 4 chilled glasses. Add ice, vodka and seltzer to taste. Stir, then serve with a lemon strip in each glass. Refrigerate or freeze the remaining rhubarb syrup.

COOK’S NOTE: The syrup also can be used to flavor granita, to sweeten tea or lemonade or even as a glaze for chicken.

– “The Bettlebung Farm Cookbook” by Chris Fischer (Little, Brown; June 2015, $35), tested by Post-Gazette

PINEAPPLE RHUBARB STRAWBERRY CONSERVE

Makes about 7 8-ounce jars

Juice from a 20-ounce can juice-packed crushed pineapple

This easy rhubarb jam is delicious on biscuits or toast.

This easy rhubarb jam is delicious on biscuits or toast.

1½ cups chopped rhubarb (¼-inch pieces, about 3 stalks)

1½ cups crushed strawberries (about 2 pints whole)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

2-ounce box fruit pectin

½ teaspoon unsalted butter

6½ cups granulated sugar

½ cups chopped pecans or walnuts

1/3 cup golden raisins

In 8-quart stainless steel stockpot, combine pineapple juice, rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice and lemon zest. Stir in pectin and add butter. Bring mixture to full rolling boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

Add sugar and stir until completely dissolved, then stir in pecans and raisins. Return mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove pot from heat and skim any foam.

Ladle conserve into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles. Wipe jar rims and threads with a clean, damp paper towel. Apply hot lids and screw bands.

Process 4-ounce, 8-ounce and pint jars in a water bath canner for 10 minutes. Remove from water bath canner and let cool for 12 to 24 hours. Check seals and remove screw bands. Store jars in a cool, dry dark place for up to 1 year.

COOK’S NOTE: This easy rhubarb jam is delicious on biscuits or toast, and can also be served with grilled chicken or pork. I left out the raisins because my dad doesn’t like ’em.

– “Blue Ribbon Canning” by Linda J. Amendt (Taunton, April 2015, $21.95), tested by Post-Gazette

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