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Rhubarb: Oh, I Don’t Know

It is all too common for consumers to be confused and bewildered by the uncommon. In particular, I am referring to fruits and vegetables considered unique and somewhat odd by U.S. standards, like the chayote, durian, and Chinese artichokes, which look a bit like maggots. But a common vegetable, that everyone seems to know of, which continues to puzzle home chefs, as well as American diners, is rhubarb. For most people, the practical application of rhubarb doesn’t extend far beyond rhubarb pie (a usually starchy, over-sugared, preparation). But rhubarb, while not inherently delicious, has other, more varied, applications that will intrigue, if not delight, and guess what, it is in season right now.

Rhubarb has its origins in ancient China, where it was cultivated for a number of medicinal purposes. Rhubarb is known for its beneficial effects on the digestive system and is still used as a strong laxative (so consume with caution). Rhubarb’s crisp sour stalks are rich in vitamin C, dietary fiber and calcium, but before going any further, it should be noted that rhubarb, while tart and nutritious, is toxic to humans if the top leaves are consumed (only eat the red stalks, or petioles). While considered a vegetable in the U.S., in 1947 rhubarb was granted an identity change and is now widely considered a fruit, largely because that is how it is utilized. Another bit of trivia, the word rhubarb is customarily used by stage actors talking quietly to one another to simulate real conversation, since it contains no harsh sounding consonants and is hard to detect (“rhubarb, rhubarb…. rhubarb!”).

Many people (myself included) find themselves somewhat turned off by rhubarb and the preparation of rhubarb, largely because the overwhelming tartness of the plant requires the use of untold amounts of sugar to make it palatable. There is basically no getting around this fact, unless you opt for another, more natural sweetener (honey, maple syrup, etc). But there are a few more savory applications for rhubarb and ways to extract the most tart, herbaceous, flavor without candying the crap out of it. Here are a few standout recipes for rhubarb that may interest the intrepid, and curious cook:

Pork Tenderloin with Rhubarb, Pear, Rosemary and Honey
Rhubarb Bread
Peanut Butter and Rhubarb Jelly
Roasted Salmon with Rhubarb and Red Cabbage

Do you have any favorite rhubarb recipes, or do you choose to ignore this fruit/vegetable in favor of other, more versatile ingredients?

Read more: All recipes, Desserts, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Nature, , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

59 comments

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4:44AM PST on Nov 30, 2011

Thanks for the article.

1:33AM PDT on Oct 18, 2011

Thank you

4:08PM PDT on Aug 19, 2011

I know alot of salt is not good for most people, but for the raw food enthusiests, I find it is scrumptious fresh. Peel the very thin layer of red. Then salt, and enjoy it's cruchy tartness. I grew up eating it this way as a child, and it is one of my all time mouth watering snacks. I much prefer it raw, than cooked. It is strangely delicious.

1:18PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

I love making strawberry and rhubarb jam since there's already so much sugar in jams, you can't really taste the bitterness of the rhubarb but it does add nice texture! Thanks for posting!

6:03AM PDT on Jun 3, 2011

make chutney with rubarb roasted cumin mint leaves salt and green chillies.[in this rubarb is replacement for raw mango.Blend all in food processor.enjoy with pakoras .

7:45PM PDT on May 31, 2011

Love Rhubarb and Strawberry Pie, so yummy!

9:52AM PDT on May 25, 2011

A trick I learned in a rhubarb cookbook:

Take whatever rhubarb and sweetener you need for a recipe, chop up the rhubarb, and put it and the sweetener in a bowl. Let it sit on the counter for a few hours, then make whatever it is you were making. Soaking the rhubarb in, say, honey at room temperature draws the flavor out of the rhubarb and mixes it with the honey so it can better permiate the whole recipe.

9:48AM PDT on May 25, 2011

You may not need to buy a rhubarb plant if you know someone who has them. You can divide the plant by pushing a shovel down the center of the crown. Half stays in the ground and will regrow to full size in 3-5 years (you can harvest it during these years without harm), the other half goes to your garden. Don't harvest the first year after transplanting, let it get established.

9:23PM PDT on May 21, 2011

I love rhubarb! If a recipe calls for a cup of sugar I cut that in half, or maybe 2/3rds, because I really enjoy the sour flavor.

5:05AM PDT on May 20, 2011

I love rhubarb upsidedown cake made with strawberry jello!

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