Before checking out the rhubarb cooking tips below, learn a little about its history, health effects, varieties, selection and how to store it.
Poisonous Rhubarb Leaves
Rhubarb is nicknamed “pieplant” due to its popularity in pies, but it also works well in savory dishes. The stalks of the rhubarb resemble red stalks of celery and are the only edible portion of the plant. The heart-shaped, wide-veined leaves are concentrated with oxalic acid which can be highly toxic. However, oxalic acid has its beneficial side for the environment. In 1995, scientists discovered that oxalic acid helps neutralize chlorofluorocarbons which threaten the ozone layer. Animals must be restrained from entering gardens and fields where rhubarb grows.
Although often used as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a leafy vegetable of the buckwheat family. In fact, in 1947, the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York, USA ruled rhubarb is to be classified as a fruit, since that is its primary usage.
Field-grown rhubarb has cherry-red stalks or petioles and bright green leaves, and has the most pronounced flavor of the two main varieties.
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Hothouse rhubarb has pink to pale red stalks, yellow-green leaves, milder flavor, and is less stringy. The leaves atop the thick edible red stalks are heart-shaped, making it a nice ornamental plant for northern gardens. The stalks can grow over two feet tall, but it’s best to harvest them at 12-18 inches.
Rhubarb is a perennial, meaning it need not be replanted yearly. It needs a cold season to flourish, making it ideal choice for northern climates.
Swiss chard rhubarb is a completely different vegetable, and should not be confused with rhubarb.
Red stalk rhubarb varieties include Canada Red, MacDonald, Valentine, Ruby, Crimson Wine and Cherry Red, while green stalk varieties include German Wine, Sutton’s Seedless, and Victoria.
Rhubarb and Health
These red stalks have purgative or laxative properties, thus consumption of large quantities can be harmful. However, a normal serving size of rhubarb can keep the body regular.
Rhubarb is high in calcium, more than a comparable cup of milk. Unfortunately, the calcium is in the form of calcium oxalate, which blocks absorption of calcium not only from the ingested rhubarb itself, but also from any other food eaten at the same time. Cooking converts the oxalic acid into an inorganic crystalline form which can build up into kidney stones. Those who tend to develop kidney stones with oxalate content should avoid rhubarb.
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Although it is low in calories by itself, containing only 20 calories per cup, the sugar needed to make rhubarb palatable raises the calorie level significantly. Rhubarb is also a good source of Vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Read on for more rhubarb cooking tips below.
Rhubarb, botanically-known as Rheum rhabarbarum, comes from a combination of the Greek word Rha for the Volga River, and the Latin word barbarum, for the region of the Rha River inhabited by non-Romans. The popular edible species, Rheum rhaponticum, originated most likely in Mongolia or Siberia. It was introduced to Europe by Italian botanist Prosper Alpinus in 1608 as a substitute for Chinese Rhubarb whose roots were used medicinally.
Ben Franklin is credited for bringing rhubarb seeds to the North American east coast in 1772, yet the red stalks did not catch on until the early 1800s, when it became a popular ingredient for pie.
In the late 1800’s, rhubarb was brought to Alaska by the Russians and used as an effective counter-agent for scurvy. By the mid-1900s, its popularity was firmly entrenched in the New England states where it was used as pastry and pie fillings and also to make homemade wine.
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The term rhubarb has also come to mean a “quarrel” or “heated discussion.” This comes from theatrical direction, believe it or not. Stage and movie directors would have actors repeat “rhubarb” and various other phrases over and over to simulate background conversations or mutterings of a surly crowd.
Rhubarb Selection and Storage
When buying fresh rhubarb, look for moderately-thin, crisp, dark pink to red stalks. Greener, thicker stalks are stringier, coarser, and more sour. The leaves should be unwilted and free of blemishes. Avoid any that is wilted, pithy, stringy or rough-textures.
The hothouse rhubarb variety is normally available year-round, while peak season for field-grown rhubarb is April to June.
Plan on one pound of rhubarb to equal 3 cups of raw, sliced rhubarb.
Fresh rhubarb is quite perishable. Place the stalks in a plastic bag to retain moisture and store for 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator crisper drawer.
To freeze, cut the rhubarb stalks into 1-inch chunks and seal in an airtight bag. Frozen rhubarb will keep up to a year at 0 degrees F.
Rhubarb is also easily canned.
Rhubarb Cooking Tips
• Rhubarb is rarely eaten raw. To prepare, first remove all the leaves, rinse and pat dry. Trim the ends and cut into 1-inch chunks. If it is stringy, just remove the tough strings as you would with celery. However, the strings will usually break down during the cooking process.
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• Stew or bake with a little water and plenty of sugar to combat the tartness.
• Rhubarb can quickly cook down into a syrupy liquid, so keep an eye on it if you need it to retain some texture for specific recipes.
• If you sweeten rhubarb after it is cooked, you will need less sweetener.
• Generally, the redder the stalk, the less sweetener is needed.
• Hothouse rhubarb should not have it, but rhubarb grown in the field often has tough strings running down the stalks, much like older celery. These strings should be removed before cooking.
• Field-grown rhubarb will have a more predominant flavor than hothouse.
• One pound of raw rhubarb will yield about 3 cups of chopped raw fruit or 2 cups chopped cooked fruit.
• You should always feel free to adjust any recipe to suit the individual tastes of your family.
Rhubarb Cooking Tips Photo ©2023 Peggy Filippone
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