Exploring Rhubarb: Do You Prize It or Despise It? How to Love, or Even Adore This Wonderful Vegetable
The general feeling about rhubarb in Minnesota is about 90 percent favorable, and a very vocal 10 percent unfavorable, which is fine. I've always been jealous of the South, and the way they have this distinct cuisine which people can react to — you hate okra, you love it; you hate chitterlings, you love them; you hate shrimp and grits — well, actually, no one hates shrimp and grits. We have something to forge a food identity around: rhubarb, the okra of the north.— Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl (St. Paul, Minnesota food and wine critic).
Dara Grumdahl might live in the Rhubarb Capital of the World, but I live ‘right next door’ to the Rhubarb Pie Center of the Universe! Sumer, Washington, just 20 miles southeast from my little town (as the crow flies) is in the midst of a rhubarb extravaganza.
And why not? Rhubarb is a tart, tangy fruit that melds beautifully with all berries and most other fruits to create tasty pies, crisps, and tarts.
It's Not What You Think!
Guess what? Rhubarb is not a fruit! Despite its common use in “all things dessert-y”, it is actually a vegetable. Botanically speaking, fruits are ripened things that contain seeds. That’s why tomatoes are technically a fruit, as are peppers, cucumbers, and squash. Rhubarb is a vegetable, like celery.
So, let’s pause for a moment to review the history of this misguided-fruit/unrecognized vegetable.
Let Me Tell You a Story
The story of rhubarb starts long ago in Siberia where its root has been used for thousands of years for digestive problems. Marco Polo was aware of it in 1271 when he travelled to China. Rhubarb was as highly valued as tea, silk, and spices on the Silk Road—the trade route from Asia to the Mediterranean Sea.
By the 14th century, merchants in France were paying 10 times more for powdered rhubarb root than for cinnamon. Rumor has it that by the mid 1600’s the cost of rhubarb powder was double the price of opium in England and more costly than saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
Rhubarb root powder was highly prized by medics and apothecaries—one could say that successful cultivation was more fervently sought than the Holy Grail. Finally in 1777 a druggist named Hayward successfully created durable, potent root stock from Russian rhubarb seeds; at long last, rhubarb was finally available to everyone.
But, note that the stalk and leaves of the rhubarb plant were simply being tossed away. It wasn’t until the mid 18th century in England that anyone thought to cook the stalk (petiole) of the rhubarb plant. What made the difference, you might ask? Well, with slavery, the sugar cane market in the Caribbean was flourishing. Sugar, once a highly-priced commodity, was now within reach of the everyday cook and so the highly astringent rhubarb stalk could finally be tamed and sweetened and consumed.
(Please keep in mind that only the stalks are edible. The leaves are highly toxic. DON'T EAT THEM!).
In 1770 Benjamin Franklin sent a case of rhubarb root from London to his friend John Bartram, an early American botanist and horticulturist. In a letter to a friend, Bartram described the wonderful tarts that could be produced with Siberian rhubarb:
“All you have to do is to take the stalks from the root, and from the leaves; peel off the rind and cut them in two or three pieces, and put them in crust with sugar and a little cinnamon; then bake the pie, or tart: eats best cold. It is much admired here, and has none of the effects the roots have. It eats most like gooseberry pie.”
Hannah Glasse is credited with the first published recipe for a rhubarb tart. Her recipe, in the “Compleat Confectioner” is very similar to what was written by Bartram.
In 1829 rhubarb appeared in American seed catalogues; it has been a popular garden product ever since, becoming a primary ingredient in jams, sauces, preserves, and especially pies, being called “pie plant” by many housewives.
And Now, Back to Today
And that takes us back to today, and back to Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. In an April 2013 article for Saveur Magazine, she described her introduction to the cultivation of rhubarb in her new home in Minnesota:
I arrived in Minnesota for college in the last months of 1988 and never looked back. Upon graduating I realized you could buy a house with an attic that smelled like a barn, and a covered porch—a real Victorian-era house. So I did. Then I headed to the garden center for my first real purchases as a landholding Midwesterner. I wanted a rosebush and a rhubarb patch. Just like Willa Cather had.
But my friend Mitch told me that you can't buy rhubarb plants just anywhere; usually people just had them. Well, what then? His mother knew of a farm stand. And there they were: strawberry-hued rhubarb plants growing in plastic gallon milk jugs. Now bear with me, because here things get dull. The rhubarb went in the ground and thrived. That's what rhubarb does. Whether you're in Minnesota or Tibet, Missouri or Latvia, England, Alaska, or Iran, rhubarb grows like a weed pretty much anywhere with usable soil and a hard freeze in the winter, which the plant needs to thrive. But now things get interesting again, because at my local farmers' market, and at all of those in the rest of the snowbelt, this weediness makes rhubarb one of the superstars of early spring. That's when bundles of rhubarb stalks appear alongside ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and wild watercress. They mark the true end of winter, the beginning of the edible outdoors, the start of local cooking becoming exciting, even exuberant, again.
I love rhubarb--tart, tangy ruby-red rhubarb. It's one of the first plants to pop up in my Springtime garden. Actually, it's the only food crop that appears in my garden at any time of year. I live in "deer country".
Bambi and company don't just wander through occasionally. They live here. In the morning they munch on the salal, at noon they frolic through the flower beds after a short nap on the back lawn, and in the evening they bed down under the cedars.
Nothing is off-limits to our four-hooved friends....nothing, that is, except for the rhubarb.
And, The Recipes
This sweet/tart sauce can be used in place of applesauce. Tasty with granola and yogurt at breakfast, or as an accompaniment at dinner with smoked pork chops.
- 2 cups diced rhubarb (about 1 pound)
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- Dash of cinnamon (optional)
- Heat the rhubarb, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the rhubarb begins to break down, and the mixture thickens, about 7 to 8 minutes.
- Season the sauce with cinnamon, if desired.
Rhubarb Refrigerator Pickles
These crisp/tart pickles are great as a snack or served on a relish tray with other fresh vegetables, olives, and cheeses.
- 2 1/2 pounds rhubarb stalks
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 3/4 cups cider vinegar
- 2 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 4 bay leaves
What is Meant by "Non-Reactive Pan"?
Pots made from metals like aluminum and untreated cast iron react with the acid of the vinegar brine and can leach a metallic flavor into your final product.
Non-reactive pans are ones made of either stainless steel or enamel-lined cast iron (think Le Creuset or similarly enameled Dutch/French ovens).
- Wash and dry the rhubarb stalks. Pare with a vegetable peeler to remove the tough, stringy skin. Cut into lengths that will fit inside 16-ounce (pint size) jars.
- Fill your jars with the prepared rhubarb. Two and 1/2 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut should be enough to fill four 16-ounce jars.
- Combine the sugar, vinegar, salt, coriander, peppercorns, and bay leaves in a large non-reactive saucepan with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 3 minutes. Remove from heat; ladle brine into the jars, placing1 bay leaf in each jar. Cool, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day. Will keep refrigerated for a month.
Just like the pie Grandma used to make.
Carb Diva's Rhubarb Crumble Pie
- 1 unbaked 9-inch pastry shell
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 5 tsp. cornstarch
- 4 cups fresh rhubarb, cut in 1/2-inch thick slices
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
- Combine sugar and cornstarch in large mixing bowl. Add rhubarb slices and toss until all slices are covered with sugar-cornstarch mixture. Set aside for about 10 minutes or until sugar appears moist.
- Place rhubarb-sugar-cornstarch mixture in unbaked pastry shell.
- Place flour, butter or margarine, and brown sugar in another mixing bowl. Cut butter into flour and sugar with a pastry blender until mixture has the appearance of coarse crumbs. Place this crumble mixture atop rhubarb in pastry shell, spreading to evenly cover rhubarb.
- Chill prepared pie in refrigerator for one hour. (This resting time will allow the cornstarch to begin to thicken the pie filling).
- After one hour, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake pie in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until crumble topping and pastry edges appear golden brown.
This chutney is wonderful with roast pork, turkey thighs, duck, or goose. (The tangy bite of rhubarb, vinegar, and spices is a perfect foil to the rich meat flavors).
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- pinch of dried crushed red pepper
- 4 cups 1/2-inch cubes fresh rhubarb (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 1/2 cup chopped red onion
- 1/3 cup golden raisins
- Combine first 8 ingredients in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a gentle simmer over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. (Be careful--the mixture can scorch easily).
- Add the rhubarb, onion and raisins; increase heat to medium-high and cook until rhubarb is tender and mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Cool completely.
- (Keep covered in the refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before serving.)
© 2015 Linda Lum