Although rhubarb has been used for millennia as a medicinal herb, only in the past few centuries has it come into common culinary usage. It is believed that the Chinese, who used rhubarb roots to treat illness, were the first to truly appreciate the plant. Rhubarb was exported from eastern Asia via the Silk Road to Europe, where it eventually became immensely popular. Until rhubarb started being cultivated in Europe and the Middle East, it was an extremely precious imported crop. In the Middle Ages, rhubarb was many times more expensive than other spices and even opium. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are quite poisonous–only the long stalks are suitable for culinary use. The toxicity of the leaves may explain why it took so long for rhubarb production to catch on in Europe, as early rhubarb experiments sometimes went fatally wrong for those who were not familiar with the plant’s potency. Rhubarb stems, or petioles, are very sour, so the availability of sugar may also have been related to rhubarb’s rise to popularity.
The easiest way to start a rhubarb patch is to find a neighbor or friend who is overrun with rhubarb and ask to dig up a few roots early in the spring. Rhubarb leaves and stalks die back completely in the winter months, so don’t be discouraged if the roots look sad and unpromising. Dig a hole in an area with some room for the rhubarb to spread (not in the middle of your vegetable garden), add plenty of compost, and plant root clumps about 6 inches deep. Cover with more compost, water well, and wait. Rhubarb is a perennial, meaning it will come up year after year, but try to avoid the temptation to harvest stalks the first year. The plant will be stronger if allowed to grow undisturbed for one season. The second year, harvest stalks in the spring when they are about a foot tall and at least ¾ inch thick. Stalks will vary in color from crimson to green, sometimes with speckles, but are best when picked in spring regardless.
Rhubarb dries out quickly and is therefore best when used as soon as possible after picking. Always discard leaves before storing. Wrap stalks in plastic wrap and store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. For long-term storage, rhubarb can be frozen or made into jam.
Rhubarb is composed primarily of water, but it also offers some carbohydrates and dietary fiber. The stalks are rich in Vitamin K and contain significant amounts of Vitamin C and potassium as well. Remember that leaves and roots are poisonous!
Although rhubarb is almost always cooked, raw stalks are sometimes adding as a garnish and flavoring agent to drinks such as lemonade. Fresh rhubarb stalks do not need to be peeled–simply rinsing them is all the preparation that is necessary–but larger, more fibrous stalks may be more palatable if the peel is removed. Rhubarb can be prepared in a number of ways but is most often stewed or baked into desserts.
Recipe: Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce
Makes about 3 cups
Chris Foster, the Vermont Foodbank’s Chief Development Officer, offered us this recipe and photo.
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar, depending on desired tartness
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 pound rhubarb stalks, cleaned and diced (about 2 ½ cups
- 1 quart strawberries, cleaned, hulled and halved
- 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
- In a heavy saucepan over medium heat combine sugar and water.
- Stir to dissolve sugar.
- Add rhubarb and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or until tender.
- Add strawberries and lemon juice and simmer for 10 minutes more.
- Allow mixture to cool for about 10 minutes.
Add water if mixture appears too thick. Drizzle over yogurt for a delicious, light dessert or lunch.
Recipe: Apple Rhubarb Brown Betty
(adapted from www.marthastewart.com)
- 3 stalks of rhubarb, trimmed of leaves
- 1 apple
- ¾ cup brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus zest if possible
- 1 small loaf of soft bread
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoons butter
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Chop rhubarb into ¼ -inch-thick chunks. Peel and core apple, then cut into ¼ -inch slices.
- In a bowl, stir together rhubarb, apple, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, and zest. Set aside.
- Melt ½ cup butter. Cut crust off bread, then cut into ½ -inch chunks. In a large bowl, stir together melted butter and bread.
- Grease a baking dish, then covered the bottom with the butter bread. Spread half of the rhubarb mixture atop the bread, then alternate layers, finishing a thin bread layer.
- Dot with remaining butter, then spoon 5 tablespoons of warm water over the top.
- Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes. Uncover, then bake until top is crusty and rhubarb is bubbling, about 10-15 minutes longer. Serve warm.
To receive more recipes and tips on your favorite fruits and vegetables, download Vermont Fresh: A Fruit and Vegetable Handbook.
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