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Contrary to calendars and thermometers, for me it's not really spring until the first blush of rhubarb graces New York City. Of course, half the fun is the anticipation; the weeks spent watching and waiting for it to appear. Once it arrives, rhubarb-mania ensues. You'll find me folding it into batters, slow cooking it into compotes, juicing it for sorbets, and canning it for jam. Before all of that, however, I pay homage to the splendid simplistic beauty of rhubarb by baking it into a pie which, above all other expressions, is the best form that rhubarb can possibly take.
If you're new to rhubarb, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. For me, there are two answers. The first is that rhubarb, along with ramps and a few other spring treasures, is the first new, fresh item of produce that's sprung up from the soil in our parts since fall. Its arrival signals the beginning of a new season, the end of culinary hibernation, and promise of a steady stream of delicious produce in the coming months. More importantly, the taste and appearance of rhubarb is delightful. Its deep red, pink, and green hues, the crisp texture, and of course, the fresh, sour taste, that when balanced with sugar and perhaps a hint of vanilla, is exceptional and unique.
When choosing rhubarb, go for the stalks with the deepest shades of red near the base (most stalks will start out red at the bottom then fade into pink, and again into green). Stalks that have some green coloring are completely fine, and you should expect to see green near the top of the stalk. Pick stalks that are firm and crisp, as opposed to flexible and rubbery, and try to choose thinner, as opposed to thicker, stalks, which, later in the season, can be tough.