Has any spring food been so misunderstood?
Rhubarb undoubtedly is the red-stemmed oddball of the produce department. Obviously a vegetable to most of the world, its long celerylike stems are officially classified in the United States as fruit (by court ruling) because that’s how it’s typically used.
Most people associate rhubarb with pie, but rhubarb successfully masquerades as fruit in many desserts. In addition, it complements meat, fowl and savory dishes. Its sweet-tart taste and hue are unique, but only the stems are edible. The flouncy dark-green leaves contain toxic levels of a potent poison, which colored my earliest perceptions of this backyard staple.
On the edge of her vegetable garden, my grandmother grew two large and beautiful rhubarb plants, but she never let me near them. “They’re poisonous,” she repeatedly warned. “Don’t touch them.”
Then one Sunday at Knott’s Berry Farm (back when this Buena Park landmark was known more for its restaurant than amusement park), we sat down to one of those famous chicken dinners. Next to the mashed potatoes and batter-fried chicken was a little bowl of crimson compote that looked like cooked strawberries but tasted like nothing I had eaten before.
When I was told it was rhubarb, I was shocked – and alarmed. “It’s poison!” My outburst became one of those oft-repeated family anecdotes, but I grew up to nurture my own rhubarb plants and came to love its seasonal flavor (especially combined with strawberries in cobblers).
Rhubarb is still served at Knott’s as an ode to its Depression-era roots. In the 1930s, America couldn’t get enough rhubarb. It became a common ingredient, from cocktails (made with rhubarb wine or tonic) to decadently sweet desserts. In the sugar rationing during World War II, it became a forgotten fruit/vegetable.
Now, ruby-red rhubarb is a rediscovered gem, pegged for three years running as the next “hot” ingredient by food trend forecasters. With swelling interest in farm-to-fork restaurants and home-grown cooking, its popularity may finally have returned.
Chefs love experimenting with rhubarb’s texture and unusual flavor. When combined with duck or pork, its tartness cuts through fat for a clean, sharp flavor. In desserts, that natural tartness balances beautifully with sweeter ingredients such as strawberries or raspberries.
Rhubarb is featured in April’s Martha Stewart Living magazine in a sumptuous tart. San Francisco bartender Dillon McCarthy created the farm-to-shaker “Strawberry Rhubarb” cocktail for Stoli vodka, using rhubarb simple syrup.
Taylor’s Kitchen in Sacramento this month offers its own take on rhubarb tart as “the perfect way to jump into spring.” Playing off rhubarb’s savory side, Ella Dining Room serves foie gras and rhubarb terrine. Mulvaney’s features strawberry panna cotta with vanilla-poached rhubarb sauce. Fresh rhubarb pies can be found all over town. Lucca recently featured grilled pork chops with dried cherry and rhubarb chutney.
For inspiration, American cooks have almost 200 years of rhubarb experience, from English and northern European roots. As one of the earliest fresh ingredients to be ready for harvest, rhubarb gives cooks a spring break from winter’s long procession of preserved foods.
From dumplings to relishes, rhubarb recipes are mainstays in Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks. “The New England Yankee Cookbook” (published in 1939) includes recipes for rhubarb-apple jelly, rhubarb ice cream, rhubarb jam, rhubarb wine and rhubarb roly poly (a jellyroll-like dessert). In some Midwest circles, rhubarb is simply referred to as “pie plant” or “pieplant.”
Part of rhubarb’s allure? It’s easy to grow. Burpee, the seed company giant, reports a sharp spike in rhubarb root sales.
About 100 varieties are available, but one cultivar dominates farmers markets: Victoria, which with its hybrids is the most prolific with thicker, longer pale green stems that have a red blush. Other varieties have pure ruby stems with red flesh throughout. These rhubarbs hold their color when cooked.
Contrary to rhubarb’s reputation, it doesn’t need a ton of sugar to be palatable, but just enough to keep that tartness from seeming bitter. When adding sugar, remember: Rhubarb actually gets sweeter as it cooks. Some varietals (such as Crimson Red) taste naturally sweeter than others, too. Modern hybrids are less stringy and sweeter than older varieties.
Just don’t eat the leaves!
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Nutrition: One cup fresh diced rhubarb contains 26 calories. It’s high in dietary fiber and a good source of vitamins C and K. Only the stems are edible.
Potential toxicity: The entire plant contains some oxalates – they can lead to kidney stones – with highest concentration in the dark leaves, which is why the leaves are toxic.
Selection: Look for crisp stalks that are moderately thin and bright in color, preferably pink to right red. Green, coarse stems tend to be stringier and less sweet. Old big green stems may taste sour. Stems should be free of bruises and unblemished. Avoid any that look wilted, limp or rough.
Storage: Fresh rhubarb is very perishable. Store for 3 to 5 days lightly wrapped in a plastic bag in your refrigerator crisper drawer. Rhubarb may be easily frozen for up to one year. Cut stalks into 1-inch pieces, pack into resealable bags and freeze.
Preparation: A pound of fresh rhubarb (stems only) yields about 4 cups raw. Rhubarb stems may be eaten raw, but it’s almost always cooked. Peeling is optional. Older stems may develop thick strings like celery; they can be stripped out just like celery. Slow cooking breaks down those fibers; that’s why stewed rhubarb or baked rhubarb dishes are popular.
Commercial crop: It’s a niche crop; only about 1,300 acres nationwide are devoted to production, mostly in Washington, Oregon and California. Hothouse rhubarb is available year round, but the fresh field crop is harvested late March through June.
Grow your own: Rhubarb is an attractive, easy-to-grow perennial that has become (again) a popular edible ornamental plant. Each spring, new stem and leaves sprout from an underground rhizome. To harvest a stalk, twist the stem off gently at the base or cut with a sharp knife. Allow some leaves to grow out, so the rhizome has energy for next year’s crop. The best varieties for home gardeners: Red Petioles, Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, MacDonald, Ruby, Valentine, Green Petioles and Victoria.
Nature’s laxative: Native to China and other parts of Asia, rhubarb has been used in Chinese medicine since 2700 B.C., but ancient herbalists focused on rhubarb roots, not stems. Powdered root in small doses was used as a laxative, to cleanse the body of poisons and as an aid to digestion. Rhubarb’s popularity moved west along the silk route and the roots naturalized in Russia and Turkey, where rhubarb soon grew wild. Marco Polo likely introduced rhubarb powder to his native Venice, circa 1300. By 1600, Italian pharmacists were growing their own rhubarb.
Eat the stems: Rhubarb’s culinary side didn’t surface until the late 1700s, when enterprising English cooks discovered the root’s spring sprouts could be used in pies and tarts. By the early 1800s, rhubarb as a pie-filling ingredient had become popularized in Massachusetts.
What’s in a name: “Rhubarb” has been in use at least since 1400 A.D. Its origin can be seen in its botanical name, Rheum rhabarbarum. That’s derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga River; Rheum comes from a root word meaning “to flow.” Rhubarb grew wild on the banks of the Rha/Volga, Europe’s longest river and the gateway to Asia. European traders bought the valuable herb from “barbarians” on the other side of the Rha; hence, the name.
Baseball’s rhubarb roots: “Rhubarb” became baseball slang for a fight or argument on the field sometime in the late 1930s. Although the origin of this use is muddled, early radio actors whispered “rhubarb, rhubarb” to imitate the noise of a rowdy, raucous crowd. According to historians, baseball radio announcers likely picked up “rhubarb” as another way to say “sounds like a fight.”
strawberry salsa with grilled pork tenderloin
This recipe is delicious, crunchy and tart. The chopped rhubarb is reminiscent of tomatillos.
1/4cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime, divided
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
One 20-ounce pork tenderloin, trimmed
3/4 cup diced rhubarb (about 1/4 pound)
1/4 cup diced strawberries (about 2 large)
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons minced jalapeño, or to taste
1 teaspoon granulated sugar, more if needed
10 ounces fresh spinach, rinsed
Preheat grill to very hot. Lightly oil grill grates.
Stir together olive oil, half the lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pour half of olive oil mixture over tenderloin. Rub oil mixture on all sides of tenderloin and set aside to rest at room temperature while grill heats. Reserve remaining olive oil mixture.
Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, cilantro, jalapeño, remaining lime juice and sugar in a medium bowl. Toss and season to taste with salt, pepper and additional sugar, if needed. Set aside until pork is cooked. Cook pork tenderloin until its temperature reaches 145 degrees, turning to brown all sides, about 10 minutes total. Remove pork from grill, cover with foil and allow to rest.
Steam spinach in microwave for 3 minutes or until just wilted. Remove from microwave and toss with remaining olive oil mixture. Arrange on platter. Slice tenderloin in 1/2-inch pieces and arrange over spinach. Spoon salsa on platter and serve immediately.
Per serving: 320 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52); 32 g protein; 6 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 19 g fat (4 g saturated); 92 mg cholesterol; 395 mg sodium.
Marzipan and rhubarb tarts
From Donna Deane via the Los Angeles Times.
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold butter, cut up
2 to 3 tablespoons water
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold butter, cut up
1/4 cup marzipan, cut up
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 cups diced rhubarb
1 cup raspberries
1 teaspoon lemon juice
For crust: Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or a fork until the crust is crumbly. Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture. Stir with a fork until the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Separate the dough into 4 parts. Roll out one part of the dough on a lightly floured surface into a round to fit into a 4-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Repeat with the remaining dough.
For crumb topping: Combine the flour, sugar, vanilla and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and marzipan, and work into the dough with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Set aside.
For tarts: Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the sugar, flour, rhubarb, raspberries and lemon juice in a bowl. Gently stir until combined. Divide the filling among the tart shells.
Sprinkle the crumb topping over the top of each. Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake about 30 minutes until browned and bubbly. Remove from oven and let cool to warm before serving.
Per tart: 785 calories; 300 mg sodium; 72 mg cholesterol; 31 g fat (17 g sat.); 121 g carb.; 8 g protein; 5 g fiber.
Crisp duck breast with rhubarb-ginger confit
Total time: 50 minutes, plus macerating time
About 2/3 pound (3 stalks) rhubarb, trimmed
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Zest of 1 orange
Freshly ground black pepper
4 duck breasts (about 1/3 pound each)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cut the rhubarb stalks into 3-by-1/2-inch sticks. Combine the sugar, ginger, orange zest and a grind or two of pepper in a large mixing bowl. Add the rhubarb and toss to coat well. Set aside to macerate for 30 minutes.
Toss the rhubarb again to coat with the liquid that has collected. Arrange the rhubarb in a baking dish in as close to a single layer as possible, and use a spatula to scrape any remaining liquid or zest over it.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake until the rhubarb is tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Don’t stir or the rhubarb may fall apart.
While the rhubarb bakes, cut a shallow cross-hatching on the skin side of the duck breasts, through the skin but not through the fat to the meat. Season the breasts liberally on both sides with salt and pepper and the ground cloves and place on a plate. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
(This recipe may be prepared to this point up to 24 hours in advance; bring the duck to room temperature and gently warm the rhubarb before proceeding.)
When ready to cook, heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot. Pat dry the skin side of the duck breasts with a paper towel and place the breasts skin-side down in the hot pan. Sear until the skin side is a deep golden brown, 31/2 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and turn the breasts over. Cook on the second side until they are medium-rare in the center, 3 to 5 minutes more.
Remove the duck breasts to a carving board and cut on a bias into thick, crosswise slices and arrange on a plate. Using a slotted spoon, gently lift the warm rhubarb sticks from the syrup and arrange beside the duck. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 400 calories; 38 g protein; 16 g carbohydrates; 1 g fiber; 20 g fat (5 g sat.); 205 mg cholesterol; 130 mg sodium.
Rhubarb upside-down cake
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 35 minutes
From the Chicago Tribune, inspired by Bon Appetit.
4 cups chopped rhubarb (from about 6 large stalks)
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 cup flour
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (plus more for pan)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
Toss together rhubarb, brown sugar, 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon zest.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and remaining 1/3 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Slide in egg, remaining 1 teaspoon lemon zest and the vanilla extract; beat fluffy again. Scoop in one-third of the flour mixture; mix on low speed just to combine. Pour in half the milk; mix to combine. Repeat, working in remaining doses of flour, milk, flour.
Generously butter a 9-inch cake pan (not springform). Scrape in rhubarb and any juices. Scrape in cake batter; smooth top. Slide into a 350-degree oven and bake until golden and a toothpick poked in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Set a serving plate over pan and flip cake, fruit-side up, onto the plate. Nice slightly warm.
Makes about 1 quart
What to do with rhubarb glop? Margaret S. Fox, former owner of Mendocino’s Cafe Beaujolais, says it makes a wonderful relish for a turkey sandwich, tastes great alongside plain yogurt and can be the basis of a strawberry rhubarb pie. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks, and it freezes well. From Fox and John Bear’s “Morning Food” (Tenspeed Press, out of print but available used or on Kindle).
3 pounds rhubarb
21/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Remove the rhubarb leaves and wash the stalks. Cut the rhubarb into 1/2-inch chunks. In a large bowl, mix with sugar and over with plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator overnight.
Stir the mixture well, scraping the bowl to incorporate any undissolved sugar, then place in a colander and drain directly into a saucepan. Place the rhubarb back in the bowl; bring the syrup in the pan to a boil. When all the sugar is dissolved, pour the syrup back over the rhubarb, stir and let sit 15 minutes.
Drain through a sieve, saving the syrup. Measure 1 cup of the syrup and return to a pot large enough to hold all the rhubarb, too. (Save the rest of the syrup, if you wish, for another use.)
Add the rhubarb, ginger and lemon juice, stir and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb is soft but not mushy. Let cool, and refrigerate.