There are some people who despise rhubarb.
They were likely enticed into sampling a bright-red — but piercingly tart — rhubarb stalk as a child. Or, possibly, they were forced to eat it in a slimy red sauce for breakfast.
For those who have sworn off rhubarb, it may be time to give this surprisingly versatile comestible another chance.
In addition to its better-known applications in sweets, rhubarb is a delicious and unexpected addition to many savory dishes. It also has some surprising alternative applications.
Sweet and savory • While rhubarb is often associated with desserts, before sugar became affordable in the late 1700s, it was used primarily in savory dishes. Sugar’s availability inspired the addition of rhubarb to a variety of sweets, and only very recently has rhubarb again been recognized and appreciated as a piquant addition to a wide range of savory dishes.
Those who love rhubarb think first of pie, suggesting why it has often been called the “pie plant.” In fact, rhubarb’s relationship with pie is so ubiquitous that many people have not experienced it any other way. Used alone or with other fruits, rhubarb-based pies are delicious. The tartness and underlying flavors of rhubarb make it marry well with apple, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple, banana, raisins, citrus (lemon, lime, orange, blood orange and grapefruit), pear and peach. Any of these flavor combinations work just as well in quick breads, muffins, cakes, crisps, dumplings, fools and tarts. Rhubarb can also be the base of ice cream, sorbet, pudding and sauce. In the summer, cold rhubarb soup is refreshing and a late-season crop can be canned as jam, jelly, marmalade or preserves—perfect for storing or gift giving.
Less familiar are rhubarb’s uses as a brightly acidic, tangy accompaniment to chicken, grilled meats, fish and seafood. Its freshness complements oily fish like salmon and adds complexity and interest to chicken. As a compote, chutney or sauce, it can add visual interest as well as unique flavors to main courses. When used as a vegetable, rhubarb is found fairly commonly in dishes of Persian origin and can be a surprising addition to casseroles, curries and salads.
Once you discover the versatility of rhubarb, you may just find that the rhubarb plot in your garden—the same one that once seemed to provide an overabundance of purportedly unusable produce—isn’t quite big enough after all.
Health • Current studies are investigating rhubarb’s efficacy in treating cancer, reducing cholesterol and lowering blood pressure, but its use as a powerful medicinal plant goes back centuries; history shows that rhubarb was being used in China to treat a variety of ailments as early as 2700 BCE. And even if nothing comes of our modern medical inquiries into the health benefits of this plant, the facts that rhubarb is exceptionally low in calories and an excellent source of dietary fiber are both strong arguments for adding more rhubarb to your diet.
In addition to its place on the table, rhubarb also has some unexpected uses. If you have burned food onto a pan, rhubarb can be used to bring back its original shine. If you favor organic products, a hair dye can be created from the root. And those beautiful green, scalloped leaves—deadly poisonous if ingested—can serve a useful purpose outside of the compost bin: if 3–4 pounds of leaves are boiled with about 4 ounces of soap flakes or soap scraps, the result is an organic insecticide, perfect for combatting leaf-eating insects like aphids.
Growing • One of the first harbingers of spring, rhubarb stalks are among the earliest crops that can be harvested. The season can begin as early as April, and lasts until frost. Rhubarb also freezes well, so you can enjoy it year round.
A long-lasting perennial and remarkably easy to grow, rhubarb demands very little attention, especially once it’s established. It prefers a rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soil, but tolerates a wide variety of soil types and levels of acidity. Extremely cold hardy, it requires winter temperatures below 40° F. to stimulate growth the following spring. In very hot weather, rhubarb likes to be watered every 7–10 days, and a top-dressing of compost or manure in the spring or fall will increase its productivity. Removing any flower stalks that grow from the plant’s base encourages more energy to go to the leaf stalks, which are the edible portion of the plant. But even if you choose simply to ignore your rhubarb until you harvest it, chances are good that it will still produce a larger yield than you can realistically use.
Harvesting • Like growing rhubarb, harvesting it is also easy. Use one hand to hold the stalk just below the leaf and the other to secure the rest of the plant at its base, a gentle twist and firm tug will release the mature stalk from the plant’s crown. Then it is a simple matter of cutting off the pink knob at the stem end and the leaf at the top of the stalk. Rhubarb leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, which are poisonous, so the leaves should go directly into the trash or into a secure compost pile that neither animals nor children can access. If the stalks seem particularly fibrous, they can be peeled; otherwise, washing is all that is needed. Once washed, the stalks can be used immediately, stored loosely in plastic wrap in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator or frozen for later use.
Rhubarb bread with lemon glaze
1 1/2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
1 extra-large egg
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel
2⁄3 cup canola oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups finely chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 81/2-by-41/2-inch loaf pans.
In a large mixing bowl, combine brown sugar, egg, salt, lemon juice, lemon peel and oil. Mix on medium speed until well blended, frequently scraping down the sides of the bowl. Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Then add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, mixing after each addition. Stir in the rhubarb and nuts. Pour tbatter into prepared pans. Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each loaf comes out clean. Combine the remaining 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with confectioners’ sugar. Pour this glaze over the hot bread, and let the bread remain in the pans for at least 15 minutes, until the glaze is absorbed. Remove from pans and serve warm or cold. The bread develops flavor overnight and also freezes well.
Servings • 2 loafs
Source: Helen Hodgson and Emily Hodgson-Soule
5 cups of diced rhubarb
1/2 cup diced Granny Smith apple
1/2 cup diced red onion
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1⁄3 cup golden raisins
1⁄3 cup dried tart cherries or cranberries
1⁄8 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
Pinch of nutmeg or mace
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
In a large pan, mix all of the ingredients together. Bring them to a boil, cover and cook over low heat until softened. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the mixture thickens. Serve with grilled chicken or pork.
Servings • About 3 cups
Source: Helen Hodgson and Emily Hodgson-Soule
For those who want to plant rhubarb, here are a few varieties grow well in Utah.
Canada Red • The reddish-magenta stalks are shorter than those of other types, but also thinner and tender. This variety produces few seed stalks.
Crimson Red • Also known as Crimson Cherry, Crimson Wine and Crimson, this variety produces stalks that are bright red all the way through, which is unusual.
Macdonald • Also known as Macdonald’s Canadian Red and Macdonald Crimson. Extremely vigorous plant is resistant to wilt and root rot.
Mammoth Red • Also known as The Giant, Stott’s Mammoth and Mammoth. True to its name, this variety produces a bumper crop of edible red stalks on plants that can grow up to five feet high.
Riverside Giant • A cold-hardy, exceptionally vigorous cultivar, that produces long, thick green stalks.
Valentine • Produces few or no seed stalks and has thick, red edible stalks that retain their color when cooked.