Sunday, June 12, 2011

Focus: RHUBARB (Rheum Rabarbarum)

Rhubarb is botanically a vegetable - not a fruit - and is a member of the buckwheat family.  To many cooks and gardeners, rhubarb stands for all that is homegrown and homemade.  It is welcome as one of the first fresh foods widely available after a long winter.  It is especially user-friendly since with just a little care and feeding a plant can be productive for a few decades or more. It is often used in old fashioned pies, crisps, cobblers, cakes and sauces - earning it a reputation as midwestern comfort food.

Most rhubarb is grown in small backyard patches in areas with cold climates.  It needs a period of two or more months of mid-morning freezing temperatures to prepare for spring.  It is unusual to find large concentrations of rhubarb production - such as that found in Featherstone Farm's perennial rhubarb beds. There is such a thing as commercial rhubarb - the 2,000 acre (more or less)  "national crop" is clustered in various locations in Washington, Oregon, California and Michigan. There is even a Washington Rhubarb Growers Association.  There are a lot of rhubarb recipes - and some interesting rhubarb history -  on this web site.

The Rhubarb Capital of Minnesota is the little town of Lanesboro, just 15 miles west of Featherstone Farm.   Lanesboro hosts a rhubarb festival the first Saturday of June every year.  One of the festival events is a rhubarb tasting.  Creative cooks come up with new uses for rhubarb every year.  The festival website contains many good recipes.

A cup of rhubarb has only 25 calories.  Rhubarb is 95% water and is a good source of calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamins A and C.  It contains significant amounts of lutein, a carotenoid which promotes eye health.  Do NOT eat the leaves, which contain oxalic acid, a poisonous substance.  A lethal dose would require a person to eat seven pounds of leaves - the reason why you have never read of someone dying from rhubarb poisoning. 

History and geography
Rhubarb is native to western China and came to the United States in the 1700's.  It grows prolifically in Siberia and the Himalayas and has long been a common food in many areas of the Middle East.  Rhubarb is grown in Iraq, where you might find it thinly sliced in a salad with pomegranate seeds and feta cheese or other savory dishes.  Cold drinks made with rhubarb juice are also common in Middle Eastern countries.

Medicinal and other uses
Rhubarb has long been known for its laxative effect - hence its reputation as a spring "tonic".  According to the Featherstone Farm cookbook,  dried rhubarb root has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Rhubarb stimulates the digestion and some even believe it is an aphrodisiac!

Rhubarb leaves can be used to scrub burnt areas on pots and pans to restore the shine.

Preparation and storage
Rhubarb leaves are usually removed prior to sale.  If they happen to still be attached to a stalk, remove and compost.  The leaves are not edible as they contain high levels of oxalic acid.  Rhubarb will keep - unwashed -  for about 10 days wrapped in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin in your refrigerator.  To prepare, simply trim off the root and stem ends, wash and slice.  No need to peel. 

Rhubarb freezes extremely well and does not require blanching.  Wash, dry and slice the rhubarb in 1/2 inch pieces.  Spread out on a cookie sheet or baking pan and place in the freezer.  When the pieces are frozen, place in freezer bags or other freezer containers.  To use, just add frozen pieces to the recipe.
There are many recipes for rhubarb jam, conserve, marmalade and chutney if you want to preserve rhubarb in the form of condiments.


Special note: red v. green rhubarb.  Some people think red rhubarb is better.  I am not one of them.  Rhubarb that is pale pink or even greenish is quite edible and tasty.

Rhubarb Sauce -  (This is on the tart side. You can always add a bit more sugar to taste. I do not add any extra water because I prefer my rhubarb sauce on the thick side. If you want a thinner sauce – or a soup – just add some water or even orange juice.)
8 cups rhubarb, cut into ½ inch pieces (You can substitute chopped strawberries for about 2 cups of rhubarb. Add those near the end of cooking.)
1 ½ cups sugar
2 ¼ inch slices fresh ginger, optional
Mix together rhubarb and sugar in a nonreactive cooking pot. Let stand about half an hour. Stir a few times and add the ginger if you are using it. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat. Simmer gently just until rhubarb is tender. Best served chilled. This will keep in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. It is good eaten plain or served on top of plain cake or ice cream. It can also be the fruit base for a cobbler or simply spread on toast or served with a dollop of plain yogurt.

Rhubarb Ketchup - This is the recipe used by Lanesboro’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church youth group every year at the Rhubarb Festival. It is great on hot dogs.
4 cups diced fresh or frozen rhubarb
3 medium onions, chopped
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, undrained
2 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 T. pickling spice (tied in a cheesecloth bag or in a strainer ball)
Mix all ingredients in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 1 hour until thickened. Cool. Refrigerate in covered containers. Yields about 6-7 cups.

Rhubarb Custard Pie
3 Eggs
3 T. Milk
2 C. Sugar (note from P. : You could cut this back to 1 1/2 cups if you wanted to.)
1/4 C. Flour
3/4 tsp. Nutmeg
4 C. Rhubarb, cut up
1 T. Butter
9 Inch Pie Crust and Top
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Beat eggs slightly and add milk. Mix sugar, flour and nutmeg; stir in. Mix in rhubarb. Pour into pastry lined pie pan. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust. Brush top crust with 1 T. milk. Bake 50-60 minutes until nicely browned. Serve warm or cold.

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