Originally revered for its medicinal value, rhubarb has been cultivated since 2700 B.C. Rhubarb arrives in the produce aisle in spring and can be enjoyed in dessert dishes, such as strawberry rhubarb pie, and in savory dishes, from scrambled eggs to hearty casseroles. If you haven’t tried rhubarb, you are missing a hallmark treat of spring.Here is the skinny on this vegetable stalk.
Rhubarb is the pinkish stem of the Rheum rhabarbarum plant species that is often mislabeled as a fruit. According to The Healthy Food Directory, it is rich in calcium and potassium with significant amounts of thiamine (vitamin B1). Though plain in appearance, this vegetable is versatile in sweet or savory dishes, adding a tart flavor and a burst of light pink.
Origins of Rhubarb
According to The Rhubarb Compendium, rhubarb was originally used for its medicinal purposes in Northern Asia. Rhubarb is a natural laxative and was thus used for its purgative qualities. Records show that rhubarb dates back to 2700 BC in China. One emperor, Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty even used rhubarb to cure his fever.
Eventually, Marco Polo brought rhubarb back to Europe from one his oriental excursions. It wasn’t until the 18th century in Great Britain when rhubarb was cultivated for cooking. Rhubarb was often smashed and used as a filling for pies and tarts.
How to Choose Rhubarb
The sturdiest rhubarb is available later in the summer but it begins to sprout in the early spring, and the forced variety is also available in the early spring. Rhubarb shoots are bright pink with yellowish leaves and are very tender. In late spring and summer, rhubarb becomes more fibrous – stalks turn a pinkish-purple and the leaves are billowy and green.
At the store or market stand pick rhubarb that looks crisp and brightly colored. The stalks should release sap when you snap them. Avoid limp or bruised rhubarb stalks.
Rhubarb stalks can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator for few days but tend to wilt quickly. For longer storage, rhubarb freezes well. Just cut the stalks into short pieces and blanch in boiling water. Immediately relieve the stalks in ice cold water and freeze in plastic bags.
How to Prepare Rhubarb
First and foremost, chop off the leaves and discard them – they are poisonous. The rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid that causes the throat and tongue to swell, which could result in suffocation. Also, cut off the root end and discard it.
Rhubarb is never eaten raw because it is too fibrous and sour. However, after poaching the vegetable, rhubarb can be pureed and mixed with spices to make chutney or a jam.
Chopping rhubarb is similar to chopping celery. Cut off and discard the root end and the leaves. Peel off any stringy fibers, then chop the rhubarb into pieces of a desired size.
Poach the rhubarb gently with a couple of spoonfuls of water in a stainless steel pan until tender. Add one or two teaspoons of sugar or until you reach your desired sweetness. No matter what kind of dish you are preparing, rhubarb will always taste best with a couple teaspoons of sugar.
Serving Suggestions for Rhubarb
The most popular use of rhubarb is in strawberry rhubarb pie (see recipe below) but there are many other variations including cherry rhubarb, orange rhubarb, banana rhubarb and raspberry rhubarb pie. Any sweet fruit pairs well with rhubarb in a pie, tart or jam.
Rhubarb can also be used in savory dishes. The Five a Day Fruit and Vegetable Cookbook suggests sweetening rhubarb ever so slightly and cooking it with scrambled eggs. It also adds a tartness to rich casseroles made with pork, duck and lamb or makes a good substitute for sorrel in sauces served with oily fish such as mackerel. Rhubarb can be included in lighter dishes, too. Try our Rhubarb Salad for a tasty twist on a spring or summer salad.
Rhubarb naturally has an affinity to be paired with sweeter tastes. In Field Guide to Produce, Aliza Green lists complimentary flavors for rhubarb being blackberries, brown sugar, ginger, goose, honey, maple syrup, raspberries and, of course, strawberries. Green also suggests rhubarb pairings with oily fish or duck.
Bring color and piquancy to fresh dishes this spring and summer, add rhubarb to your shopping list and try recipes with new pairings for this versatile vegetable.
Sweet Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie
1 pie pastry
1 cup sugar or sugar substitute (plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling)
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups trimmed, sliced strawberries
2 cups chopped rhubarb (cut in 3/4- to 1-inch pieces)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Combine 1 cup sugar or substitute, salt and flour. Arrange half the strawbwerries and rhubarb pie pan. Sprinkle with half the sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining fruit and sugar mixture.
2. Dot pie filling with butter. Brush pastry edge with cold water and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar or substitute. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and crust is golden (if crust begins to brown too quickly, cover crust with strips of aluminum foil). Let cool slightly and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.