“Imagine the first rosy rhubarb of the year,” Elizabeth Schneider writes in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, “welcome as new grass.”

As one of the first spring crops in the northern hemisphere, rhubarb serves as its own photogenic red carpet at the farmers market. Like asparagus, it boasts long clean lines that nod to the minimalist design. Its high contrast green and crimson hues look great with or without filter. Plus, it’s in dessert!

While careful rhubarb arrangement takes some knife skills, it’s relatively easy to make a design-y dessert with it.

Rhubarb is also delicious.

Though it eats like a fruit and is generally prepared in pies, cakes, and other sweet dishes, rhubarb is the stalk of a plant (one that had mildly poisonous leaves), making it a vegetable. It was originally used medicinally, and brought to Europe in dried form from what is now Western China. In 1657, dried rhubarb sold for nearly three times the going rate for opium.

“A relative of buckwheat, its flavor earthy and bracingly sour, rhubarb thrives in cold climates—although its glowing color suggests the tropics,” Schneider writes.

It’s the rare heritage ingredient that has also maintained a certain grandmotherly quality. Rhubarb became popular to eat in Europe and the US only in the 19th century, when the sugar required to tame its mouth-puckering tartness became readily available. The famed American plant breeder Luther Burbank developed a new variety of rhubarb that flourished throughout a long growing season, less sour and with gorgeous coloring. America promptly fell in love with the strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Rhubarb is very versatile, so long as you address the tartness, and it can be used in a killer cocktail, as well.

Bon Appetit‘s rhubarb custard cake has recently gone a bit viral, but I’m partial to the anise-rhubarb upside down cake made in a cast-iron skillet, from Gourmet in 1999. It’s incredibly easy, looks fancy, and requires zero pie crust skills. And it turns out rhubarb and anise seed are one of those surprisingly delicious combinations that I would never have thought of.

It’s my go-to dessert, once rhubarb is available at the market or in my yard. And with its rustic cast-iron pan and the drama of flipping the cake out onto a plate, it’s perfect for an Instagram story.

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