Rhubarb has been grown for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 1800s when sugar became widely available that rhubarb gained a permanent foothold in American kitchens. Rhubarb is quite tart but it can be tamed with sugar. A favorite in pies, in many parts of the country cooks still refer to rhubarb as “pie plant.”

Rhubarb can take awhile to get to know. I suffered through all sorts of preparations my wife made in her valiant attempts to try to get me to like it before I finally came to not only accept it but love it.

I find rhubarb to be great in savory dishes cooked with lamb, as a relish for game birds, and in soup with ham, for example. For sweet dishes, rhubarb adds tang to compotes, jams, cakes, tarts, pies, ice cream, mousses and muffins. Strawberry and rhubarb make a particularly delicious combination.

Orange and rhubarb make a particularly fine mating. When stewed with orange juice, sugar and spices just until tender and cooled, you’ll have a fine dish to serve all by itself or spooned over vanilla ice cream.

I always use red rhubarb stalks because they look so pretty. When buying rhubarb, make sure the stalks feel firm and look glossy. Never use the leaves because they contain oxalic acid and other toxic substances.

The muffin recipe here is super easy to make. Make sure you dice the rhubarb into smallish pieces — ¼ inch — so that they’ll cook completely during baking. The high temperature helps make muffins dome up dramatically during baking.

Rhubarb Walnut Muffins

These are big, light-textured, tangy muffins packed with fresh rhubarb and crunchy walnuts. Whole-wheat flour adds fiber and wheat germ. For best results, use a non-stick standard-size muffin pan. Lacking that, line muffin cups with paper liners. To measure flour, dip 1-cup dry measure into flour container, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess with a straight edge. To warm cold eggs taken straight from the refrigerator, put the eggs into a small bowl, cover with hot tap water, and let stand 5 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and eggs are ready to use.

1 cup (5 ounces) whole wheat flour

1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon table salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 cups (8 ounces) diced (¼-inch) rhubarb stalks

½ cup chopped walnuts

2 large eggs at room temperature

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

¾ cup sour cream

⅓ cup whole milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Grated zest of 1 large orange (about 2 tablespoons)

Topping: About 3 tablespoons dark brown or turbinado sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a standard-size non-stick muffin pan with cooking spray.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together thoroughly both flours, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the rhubarb and walnuts and toss well with a rubber spatula to coat with the dry ingredients.

3.In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until the yolks and whites are thoroughly combined. Whisk in the butter, sour cream, milk, and vanilla until very smooth. Whisk in the orange zest.

4. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and fold gently just until the batter is thoroughly moistened and no bits of flour remain. The batter will be thick. Divide among the prepared muffin cups, filling them almost to the top. Sprinkle each muffin top with dark brown or turbinado sugar.

5. Bake about 18 minutes, until the muffins are golden brown with domed tops that spring back when gently pressed. Cool the muffins in their pan for 10 minutes, then remove them to a napkin-lined basket and serve them hot or warm. Pass softened butter separately.

Makes 12 large muffins.

NOTE: Leftover muffins may be reheated at 50 percent power for 1 minute in a microwave oven or for 5 minutes in a conventional oven preheated to 350 degrees.

Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for Baking in America. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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