Rhubarb an agreeable alternative

In the company of elegant beauties like asparagus, artichokes, apples and pears, rhubarb might seem unexceptional.

The stalks are stringy and tart, the oversized leaves are ungainly and poisonous and it possesses a gnarled root ball that just won't quit.

But place this homely harvest in the vicinity of a well-turned pâte brisée, and you've got pie-lovers heaven. Lined up with a little sugar and cream, the sensible-shoed rhubarb turns deliciously vibrant. And in the same jar with a chutney or relish? Well, it becomes downright playful and exotic.

So even if the guardian angel overseeing rhubarb failed to arrange for an extreme makeover prior to unleashing this versatile vegetable on the world, you should be darned happy it's here. As any cook or canner knows, what rhubarb lacks in the looks department is more than compensated for when it comes to flavor and adaptability.

Besides, the simple, basic fact is that rhubarb is fabulously easy to work with. It's a snap to freeze and makes delicious jams and sauces. Another plus is that frozen chunks of rhubarb can be used in most recipes calling for fresh — without altering the formula.

Right now and throughout the summer while the harvest is on, stock your pantry with plenty of delectable rhubarb offerings. Next December, you'll be happy you were so insightful.

FREEZING FRESH RHUBARB: To use in most recipes, do not thaw rhubarb before combining with other ingredients because it becomes somewhat mushy, making accurate measurement difficult. Freeze only firm, young, well-colored stalks. Prepare by washing, trimming and cutting into pieces of a half-inch to 2 inches, or longer, to fit the package.

DRY PACK METHOD (NO SUGAR): This is the method I prefer because then the rhubarb can be used throughout the year in any recipe calling for fresh rhubarb. Lay dry pieces on a large cookie sheet and freeze for about 10 minutes (just until the outer surface is hard). Pack snugly into freezer bags or cartons, leaving a half-inch head space to allow for expansion during freezing; seal and freeze.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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