The local rhubarb season lasts only through mid-June. (March 26,...

The local rhubarb season lasts only through mid-June. (March 26, 2011) Credit: MCT/ROB WIDDIS

Until I became a shareholder at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, I was under the mistaken impression that rhubarb had a single use, as a pie filling. Only when I received my share of the Community Supported Agriculture farm's harvest for the first time -- six slender stalks -- did I wonder how I might use this early spring vegetable as part of a quick and healthful weeknight meal. After cooking up a deliciously tart and wonderfully versatile rhubarb and onion jam, which I served with grilled pork chops, I couldn't believe I had waited so long to eat rhubarb for dinner.

There are several reasons why otherwise curious cooks take a pass on rhubarb when it's in season. To those of us who didn't grow up with it, rhubarb is mysterious and a little bit scary. Because it has a short growing season -- rhubarb from the mid-Atlantic states is at the market now; soon, local rhubarb will arrive and last only through mid-June -- it doesn't allow much time for experimentation before it is gone. Then, there is the appetite-killing rumor that rhubarb is poisonous. In fact, only the leaves contain significant amounts of oxalic acid, which can be toxic when ingested in large quantities; you will notice right away when shopping for rhubarb that only safe-to-eat stalks are sold. Finally, there is rhubarb's hybrid reputation, which makes it difficult to get a handle on. While technically a vegetable, rhubarb is often sweetened with sugar and used as a fruit in cakes, pies and quick breads. It takes a little work to make the mental leap from pie to pork chops.

The leap is easier if you compare rhubarb to lemons. With lots of added sugar, lemons shine in all kinds of desserts. Lemon wedges squeezed over rich grilled steaks or salmon fillets finish those dishes with a nice hit of acidity. Similarly, rhubarb brings a welcome tang to both sweet and savory dishes. If lemon bars are your favorite dessert, seek out a recipe for rhubarb squares this spring. If you enjoy your grilled chicken with a squirt of lemon, it's the right time of year to try it with a little rhubarb-onion jam on the side instead. Or use the seasonal jam:

On grilled pork chops or salmon fillets.

On grilled lamb chops, I add 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander and add 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh mint leaves when I know I'll be serving the jam with lamb. Rhubarb, coriander and lamb are a traditional and delicious Persian combination.

On crusty rolls with grilled sausages and mustard.

With goat cheese on flatbread.

Mixed with freshly cooked plain couscous, as a side dish.

To top turkey burgers.

To moisten turkey-and-bacon sandwiches on toasted country bread.

A few notes on shopping, handling and storage: Color is more often an indication of variety rather than ripeness, so don't fret if the rhubarb you see is green rather than ruby-red. Pay more attention to its shape and texture. Choose slender stalks over thick ones if you can. They should be fresh and firm, not flaccid like the weeks-old celery in the back of your refrigerator. If your rhubarb is young and tender (as it should be this early in the season), simply trim the ends before chopping. If your stalks are older and thicker, use a paring knife to peel away the outside stringy layer first.

Rhubarb will keep for up to a week in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

RHUBARB-ONION JAM

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 pound (4 to 5 stalks) rhubarb, trimmed, strings removed, if necessary, and cut into 1 / 2-inch pieces

3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

Salt

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1. Heat oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add fennel seeds, if using, and cook until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add onion and cook until golden, about 15 minutes.

2. Add rhubarb, sugar, water and vinegar and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is evaporated and rhubarb is soft and jam-like, another 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt, stir in thyme and let cool to room temperature. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days before serving. Makes about 2 cups.