Friday, June 19, 2015

Rhubarb 101

Rhubarb is a herbaceous perennial plant and is actually considered a vegetable not a fruit. In 1947 a US court decision ruled that it was so often used as a fruit that it should become one. It is now considered a fruit for the purpose of regulation and duties. The rhubarb plant produces a long and fleshy stalk called a petiole and has a large triangular leaf. The stalk is the edible portion and has a sour and tart taste. The stalk can vary in color from bright red to speckled pink to green. The green stalks are just as good as the red as they are just a different varietal. The triangular leaf contains several toxins, one being Oxalic Acid which can cause swelling of the tongue, throat and severe illness. If a rhubarb plant is damaged by severe cold the toxins from the leaves migrate to the stalk and the stalk should not be eaten. Rhubarb is in the Buckwheat family (Polygonaceaey) which includes sorrel, dock and buckwheat. 

Rhubarb is native to East Asia and there are sixty varietals still available today. Thousands of years ago rhubarb was used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes and primarily as a laxative. It is mentioned in the "Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic" which is thought to have been compiled 2,700 years ago. Widely used by the Arabs, Greeks and Romans, commerce for the medicinal purposes was well established in Islamic times as it was transported over the  Silk Road. Rhubarb reached Europe in the 14th Century. It was delivered through the ports of Aleppo and Smyrna and became known as “Turkish Rhubbarb.” Rhubarb comes the from the Latin word “rhababarum” which means “root of the barbarian.” The Romans actually called people who ate rhubarb barbarians. Over time it became more expensive then other goods transported along the same route due to the transportation costs. Rhubarb was pricier than cinnamon, opium and saffron. The explorer Marco Polo searched for a place where the plant could be cultivated more economically and discovered it could be grown in the Tangut Mountains of China. In the 17th century rhubarb was introduced to Western Europe and in France they discovered that rhubarb made an excellent sauce. 

Rhubarb can be cultivated indoors and outdoors. Indoor rhubarb is redder in color and has a sweeter taste. In moderate climates rhubarb is one of the first foods harvested in mid-late Spring and thrives in direct sunlight. The climates in Canada and the Northern United States are well suited to rhubarb production with the largest concentration being Washington, Oregon and Michigan. For more about rhubarb go here and here.

Here are some fun facts about Rhubarb. The first seeds that showed up in the United States were sent to the Quakers in the late 1700’s by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself. It was first introduced in the US as a medicine. Americans developed a taste for rhubarb in the 1820’s as it appeared in US seed catalogs and became known as the “pie plant” for it’s use in pies but also sauces, preserves and jams. Rhubarb is also a great substitute for cranberries due to their bitterness and acidity. In the past uses for rhubarb included dye. You can dye an egg or your hair but also make a sweater or paper out of rhubarb. In the UK, the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in forcing sheds. This produces a more tender and sweet stalk. This region of the UK is called Rhubarb Triangle. It is a 9-square-mile triangle in West Yorkshire, England between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell.

For more interesting facts about rhubarb check out this site and for more things about rhubarb go to this fun piece from The Food Network.

To Store

Always remove leaves which are poisonous and should not be eaten. Rhubarb can keep for up to two weeks in the fridge if stored properly. Store whole rhubarb stalks without washing them in a humidity controlled drawer in the refrigerator or in a vented container. It is important to keep a desirable water content with fruits and vegetables. The right level keeps them fresh, the wrong level will cause mold and other contaminants to grow. Rhubarb freezes well after cooked. To freeze rhubarb for future use click here and for other ideas on how to preserve rhubarb go to this piece from the Local Kitchen Blog.

To Nourish

Rhubarb is loaded with minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. It provides dietary fiber, protein, vitamins C, K and B complex. Rhubarb is rich in calcium, potassium, manganese and magnesium. It contains organic compounds like polyphenolic flavonoids like beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. Health benefits include weight loss due to rhubarbs low calorie content. It also boosts the bodies metabolism. Rhubarb fights cardiovascular disease and promotes heart health by supplementing the bodies own good cholesterol due the to the presence of dietary fiber. It is also high in anti-oxidants. Rhubarb aides in digestion with it’s high fiber content. It also has properties, predominantly Vitamin K, that are linked to Alzheimers prevention. Rhubarb aids in bone health, cancer prevention and promotes healthy blood circulation. For more information on the health benefits of rhubarb go here and here.

To Prepare

Without sugar, rhubarb is mouth-puckering. It is sour and tart. One would have to ponder why people began to incorporate rhubarb into their diets in the first place. Historically, people came out of long cold winters with starch and meats as their staple and rhubarb is one of the first spring fruits they would see. The sight of rhubarb was most likely a welcome sign and it became commonly paired with strawberries as they both are early spring crops. Before sugar was widely available it was commonly cooked in stews in the Northern regions like Siberia and the Himalayas.

Rhubarb can be pickled, preserved and made into compotes and sauces. It can be a key ingredient in several desserts and baked goods like cakes, pies (it is the “pie plant”), muffins, scones and tarts. It can also be used in savory dishes like Moroccan tagines and stews. Rhubarb is a fruit that can be fermented into wine and also makes a great addition to a cocktail. Other fruits and flavors that pair well with rhubarb include oranges, blood oranges, grapefruit, apples, blackberries, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla and maple syrup. Note that when rhubarb is cooked down it will often turn into a puree that might seem mushy. Usually with the addition of a fruit with texture like apples and strawberries this problem in remedied. Here are some preparation tips from

To Try 
Rhubarb Ginger Cooler
Rhubarb Fizz
Rhubarb Gin and Tonic
Rhubarb Collins
Rhubarb Shrubs
Pickled Rhubarb
Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

Strawberry and Rhubarb Jam
Quick Rhubarb Chutney
Rhubarb and Beet Salad
Rhubarb and Lentil Curry
Rhubarb Sauces for Fish
Sea Bass with Sweet and Sour Orange Rhubarb Sauce
Rhubarb Glazed Shrimp
Lamb Ribs with Rhubarb and Radish Salad
Spicy Chicken Thighs with Rhubarb and Cucumber Salsa
Roast Chicken with Rhubarb Butter and Asparagus
Chicken Tagine with Rhubarb
Chicken Smothered in Rhubarb

Glazed Ham with Grape Rhubarb Compote
Pork Chops with Rhubarb, Onion and Raisin Chutney
Beef Tenderloin with Rhubarb and Red Wine
Cheesecake with Charred Rhubarb Compote and Sliced Strawberries 
Strawberry Rhubarb Coffee Cake
Rhubarb Vanilla Pound Cake
Rhubarb Muffins with Almond Streusel

Rhubarb Ginger Muffins
Strawberry Rhubarb Scones
Baked Buttermilk Doughnuts with Strawberry Brown Butter Glaze
Berry Delicious Rhubarb Crisp
Rhubarb Peach Cobbler
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Orange Rhubarb Bread

Strawberry Rhubarb Hand Pies
Grandma's Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Bluebarb Pie
Rhubarb Tarte Tatin
Rhubarb Pate de Fruit
Strawberry Rhubarb Yogurt Pops
Refreshing Rhubarb Ice Cream

To Use

The rustic charm of kitchen ceramics in an Emile Henry 1850s catalog provided the inspiration for the French company's Artisan series of bakeware.
The Emile Henry Artisan Pie Dish is shaped from Burgundian clay, which absorbs, distributes and retains heat evenly, so pies bake and brown to perfection. The dish's generous proportions and scalloped rim make it ideal for baking deep-dish fruit and savory pies that will be served at the table. Microwave, oven, dishwasher, freezer and broiler safe. (Williams-Sonoma, $49.95)