I was well into my twenties before I had my first taste of rhubarb. Relegated to a list of items that never graced the family table, it perplexed me as an adult. I knew that it was a herald of warmer weather and something that paired well with strawberry-filled pies, yet rhubarb’s rosy celery-like stalks and dark green leaves looked something akin to Swiss chard. It wasn’t until I was served a rhubarb panna cotta with flecks of sea salt that I discovered its tangy deliciousness.
A Brief History
In America, rhubarb is an imported plant, having arrived in the Northeast states in the early nineteenth century. While native to Siberia, its cultivation and trade stretches back to the days of the Silk Road when rhubarb was considered a Medieval European luxury item and prized by the Chinese as a laxative.
It wasn’t until the availability of cane sugar that European cooks transformed the bitter vegetable into something sweeter, filling pies and other desserts with its pink stalks. England was such a major producer of hothouse-grown rhubarb that a special train was set up to express it from producers in the north to waiting wholesalers in London and beyond during the season’s peak.
- A nine square mile area in the north of England is referred to as “Rhubarb Triangle” where growers perfected the art of forced rhubarb. This traditional method entails growing it in dark sheds heated by a coal fire. Not only did this extend the growing season into the winter, but it produced a sweeter, more tender rhubarb.
- English recipes typically pair rhubarb with ginger while American cooks favor pairing it with strawberries.
- Rhubarb leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid, the same toxic substance that gives spinach its bite, though found in much lower concentrations. Avoid eating the leaves of rhubarb as they are poisonous.
- The leaves can be used to make a natural pesticide!
A relative of buckwheat, rhubarb is an herbaceous perennial that grows both indoors and outdoors. As an indoor plant it has a history of being overwintered in dark conditions (see the nibble above), a technique that is called "forcing." This allows natural sugars to build up in the stalks that balance out the tart taste for which it is known. Since rhubarb is native to Siberia, it grows best outdoors in similar climes such as northern Michigan, Washington state, Ontario, and Yorkshire in the north of England.
Rhubarb can only be harvested a couple of years after planting as it needs time to develop an appropriate root system. To harvest, choose dark pink colored stalks that are between 0.5 and 1 inch in diameter, pulling and twisting the stalk from the base of the plant. Discard poisonous leaves at the top of the stalk. Leave about a third of the plant behind so that it may continue to grow annually.
At its height in the 1930s, England produced 90% of the world’s rhubarb, but it’s now additionally grown in the U.S. and Canada. While not as popular as it was in the first half of the 20th century, rhubarb is receiving renewed interest in the U.S. as a local, seasonal plant.
Forced rhubarb starts arriving in markets from January to early spring while the field grown variety arrives in the late spring to early summer. Rhubarb is typically harvested in early spring while the plant is at its maximum flavor.
Rhubarb is a good source of Vitamin K and C. It is also a highly acidic plant with a pH of 3.1.
What to Look For
Medium-sized ruby stalks that are firm and crisp. Greener stalks are usually a sign of sourness while a thick stalk will be stringy.
What To Do With It
Rhubarb keeps for about a week wrapped in the refrigerator. You can also freeze chopped rhubarb for up to a year.
Just like celery, rhubarb has strings. To remove, use a paring knife. The strings will likely break down during cooking, but cooked rhubarb has a smoother texture without them.
An easy way to cook rhubarb is to slice the stalk into inch-long chunks, removing all leaves, and to boil with sugar until tender, adding a little bit of lemon zest to the mix. As rhubarb is quite sour, it pairs well with foods and ingredients that balance out the acidity.
Originally published on Saveur.com
6 stalks rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 3"– 4" pieces
11⁄2 cups plus 2 tbsp. sugar
Zest of 1 orange
1 cup bufala ricotta or other fresh ricotta
1. Preheat oven to 325°. Put rhubarb into a medium baking dish. Sprinkle 11⁄2 cups of the sugar over rhubarb, then scatter orange zest on top. Add enough water to baking dish to just cover rhubarb (about 4 cups). Transfer to oven and cook, uncovered, until rhubarb is very soft, about 1 hour.
2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer rhubarb to a large plate and pour sweet rhubarb juices from dish into a medium saucepan. Return rhubarb to baking dish and set aside. Boil rhubarb juices over medium-high heat until thick and syrupy, 15–20 minutes, then pour over rhubarb in dish.
3. Serve rhubarb warm or at room temperature, with a spoonful of ricotta and a bit of sugar sprinkled on top.
Let us know whether you enjoy rhubarb and if so, your favorite preparation!