Springtime is in full swing around my little corner of the world, and while I’m suspecting that we’ll be having summer-like temperatures long before we’re due, I’m still in the spirit of all the spring-themed foods: ramps, meyer lemons, strawberries, and for the first time in my life, rhubarb. That may seem a little strange to some of you, especially in the south, but I had never had a lot of contact with the stuff until recently. I personally think it’s great, when handled correctly, and wanted to talk a little about its history, its general care and feeding, and its uses outside of the ubiquitous strawberry rhubarb pie with which we’re all familiar.
Rhubarb is an herbaceous perennial that prefers well-drained soil in an area that gets full, direct sunlight. It needs quite a bit of space to grow, and has a huge appetite – it will need consistent heavy watering in the summer. It grows best in organic matter (such as compost or manure), and should never have chemical fertilizers in its first year of growth, especially those containing nitrates. The plants need to be divided and separated out every three to four years, and can actually be planted in containers as well, given that they are large enough. Hot house rhubarb is available nearly all year around, and is generally more tender and sweeter that the outdoor variety, which as you might imagine, is harvested primarily in the springtime. And if you’ve ever wondered if rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable, here’s a fun fact: it was pretty much always considered a vegetable (and still is by most folks) until a New York court declared it a fruit in 1947. Pretty interesting until you find out that import tariffs were lower for fruits than vegetables at the time. Leave it to Americans to try to get the best deal on something!
Of course that’s not all the history on this vegetable – uh, fruit – uh…well whatever. The Chinese were cultivating it thousands of years ago, and it made its way west to the Muslim world, right about the time that Islam was really beginning to flower. Muslims and other travelers of the Silk Road first brought it to Europe in the fourteenth century, where it was so prized that it actually cost more than saffron or opium. It was given the same measure of respect as diamonds, gold and silk in writings of the times, but remarkably only received its acclaim for its medical uses until the 1600s in England, when it began to be used in cooking. It finally wound up in America in the 1820s, beginning in Maine and Massachusetts, and moving West as settlers did. The primary medicinal use of rhubarb – which I was unaware of – is as a laxative. However, in recent laboratory studies, a particular pigment (parietin) and its much more potent derivative, S3, has been shown to slow the growth of the cells of leukemia and other cancers. And any strike against cancer is a strike in our favor.
As for the culinary uses of rhubarb, they are more varied than most people know. Probably the most common dish is rhubarb pie, with desserts including strawberries coming in at a close second. While the sweetness of strawberries does complement that tart taste of rhubarb, there are those out there who believe that it is not the most harmonious combination. There are countless recipes to be found on the internet; if you’re interested in jams or jellies, there are some great ones like this from www.allrecipes.com. Cocktails more you’re thing? Try this delicious looking recipe courtesy of www.thekitchn.com. And if you’re feeling ambitious, there’s homemade rhubarb wine from Ariana at the “And Here We Are” blog (www.andhereweare.net). It looks extremely tasty and I’m sure is well worth the time and effort. I myself am in the midst of mixing up a rhubarb cake with strawberry glaze: I’ll let you know how it turns out! Most all rhubarb recipes require that it be cooked first, as the stalks can be somewhat tough and fibrous. The general process involves peeling the stalks, cutting them into smaller pieces – approximately one inch pieces should do – and cooking it briefly with sugar and a small amount of water.
So now you know a little more about rhubarb than you did before. I can say that I know a lot more about rhubarb than I did before, and discovering just how easy it is to work with, acquire and afford, it will be a frequent ingredient in my seasonal cooking. Leave a comment below and let me know of anyh special recipes you use rhubarb in.