Tuesday, March 11, 2008


One of the first indicators of spring is rhubarb. Most people have a strong response to rhubarb - they love it, they hate it, they don't understand it (is it a fruit or a vegetable?) or they're afraid to try it. I think those who say they hate it either have never tried it or perhaps as a child, they took a bite of raw rhubarb thinking it was red celery - surprise! Rhubarb is not related to celery but one can certainly see the resemblance between the stalks. A relative of buckwheat (which is not really wheat - are you still confused?), rhubarb grows without much encouragement in both temperatate and cold climates throughout much of the world. It is native to Asia but loved by the British, Scandinavians, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Iranians, and many of us who live in the United States.

Much of the fresh rhubarb sold in stores is cultivated hothouse rhubarb (most of it grown in Michigan, Oregon, and Washington) but you'll find it at farmer's markets from April until June . Rhubarb is also available frozen in some supermarkets, Dole being the most popular brand in my neck of the woods. It's conveniently already washed, trimmed and cut into handy size pieces. One caveat, the huge leaves of rhubarb are full of oxalic acid and therefore highly toxic. Rhubarb in stores is sold minus the leaves - but if you acquire some with the leaves, remove them by cutting the rhubarb high on the stalk thereby removing the leaves with a portion of the stalk and discard them. Fresh rhubarb should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than three days.

Rhubarb's history is peppered with tales of its curative powers. My Great Aunt Cora regarded it as a "tonic" and used to make rhubarb syrup (which added to sparkling water becomes a refreshing drink). While its so-called medicinal properties are no doubt old wives' tales (though it is reported to be a natural laxative), rhubarb is nutritionally sound - zero fat, high in fiber and rich in Vitamin C. Rhubarb's best buddy however is sugar, without which it would be inedibible.

Also known as "pie plant" in the United States, undoubtedly because so much of it ends up in pies, rhubarb is also wonderful in muffins, quick breads, cakes, coffee cakes, fools, crisps, cobblers, chutneys, and jam (usually strawberry-rhubarb). I'm currently considering the jam as a cake filling for a classic White Cake with a Cream Cheese Frosting. Rhubarb also works in savory dishes and pairs nicely with pork. It seems to be enjoying a resurgence as it is appearing on the menus of some very tony restaurants. My mother used to make "stewed rhubarb" which was just rhubarb cooked with a little water and a lot of sugar. We ate it ice cold in little dishes. Sometimes mom would serve it over vanilla ice cream, which is my preference - and served over a piece of classic New York cheesecake, it's divine!

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