Pucker up - it's rhubarb season. Plenty of people claim not to like rhubarb, but most of them have never even tried it, scared off by its tart reputation.

But mixed with the right amount of sugar, it will turn your pucker into a smile.

"A lot of people just don't know what to do with it," said Jill Wolf, a teacher at the Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson, Ohio, and pastry chef at Luxe Restaurant in Cleveland.

Wolf teaches classes on rhubarb, showing how this versatile vegetable can be the start of so many desserts.

With rhubarb, it's the pretty red stalks that you want. The leaves can be poisonous.

Harold Blachly, a Stark County rhubarb grower, said rhubarb actually comes in red and green varieties, but he finds that most people aren't interested in the green. It's the signature red color that cooks expect from their rhubarb, he said.

Blachly, 62, has been growing and eating rhubarb all his life. He devotes about one-third of an acre of his Canton Township, Ohio, property to rhubarb and grows enough to supply all of the Canton-area Fisher Foods stores, plus more that he takes to the produce auction in Mount Hope, Ohio.

The retired machinist started his patch with just five clumps of plants, which he divided and redivided. Each leaf can turn into a new plant, and it is easy to propagate, Blachly said, even for backyard gardeners. "Water, fertilizer and sunshine are all it needs," he said.

"Most of the kids never tried it, but they say they don't like it. Now that doesn't make a lick of sense," Blachly said, noting how rhubarb isn't nearly as popular as it once was.

Wolf agreed. She said there was a time when most families had some rhubarb growing in their backyards. Rhubarb sauce was as expected a dish on the table as applesauce, she said.

While rhubarb must be sweetened to make it palatable, Wolf said if it is not over-sweetened, it can make a good sauce for meats, much like the sweet-tart flavor of cranberry sauce.

Rhubarb is best known for its use in desserts - rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies are classic American fare.

Mixing this tart vegetable with fruit, particularly berries, makes a good combination for crumbles, cobblers and cakes.

Orange zest also is good for pairing with rhubarb to bring out its flavor. Wolf likes to make a rhubarb sorbet to serve between courses as a palate cleanser.

Wolf said she has even seen dessert pizzas topped with rhubarb sauce. "It's kind of a fun thing to use, and people don't use it as much as they should," she said.

If cooking or baking with rhubarb for the first time, Wolf recommends sticking close to the recipe until you determine how well you like the taste. Some cooks have a tendency to over-sweeten it, she said.

For flavoring, cinnamon and nutmeg work well, along with orange peel.

When making a sauce for meats, Wolf said less sugar would be required, or even an alternative sweetener such as agave nectar.

Blachly said rhubarb will grow all summer long, but he believes the early crop is always the best.

Rhubarb Sauce

Makes: About 4 cups.

• 4 cups chopped rhubarb

• 2 cups sugar

• Pinch of salt

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put chopped rhubarb in a saucepan with a small amount of water (approximately 1/4 to 1/2 cup), the sugar, vanilla and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until rhubarb is soft, about 15 minutes. Cool.

Serve as a side dish like applesauce, or serve warm over ice cream or as a jam on biscuits.

Jill Wolf, Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson, Ohio

"Most of the kids never tried it, but they say they don't like it. Now that doesn't make a lick of sense."

Harold Blachly,

Ohio rhubarb grower

Rhubarb-strawberry Pie

Makes: 1 pie.

• 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups sugar

• 3 tablespoons corn starch

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

• 3 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

• 2 cups sliced fresh strawberries

• 1 tablespoon butter

• pastry for double pie crust

In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar, cornstarch, salt and ground nutmeg. Add rhubarb pieces and sliced strawberries, toss gently to coat fruit. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare and roll out pastry. Fit half the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate and trim to edge of plate. Pour fruit mixture into crust. Dot with butter. Place top pastry over filling; seal and flute edge. Cut slits in top of pie to allow steam to escape.

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Adapted from www.cooks.com

Rhubarb-Strawberry Sauce

Makes: 4 cups.

• 1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, washed, trimmed, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces

• 1/2 cup sugar

• 1/2 cup water

• 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

• 1/2 pound strawberries, washed, hulled, and thinly sliced

In a large saucepan, combine the rhubarb, sugar, water, and cloves. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a bowl and stir in strawberries; cool. Serve over ice cream, pound cake, or angel-food cake.