All About Rhubarb

By, Rod Michael

all about rhubarb

I have got to say that there is nothing better than my wife’s strawberry-rhubarb crisp. What makes it so exceptional is her baking skills are without equal. She truly is remarkable and I am not trying to score brownie points here, although her brownies are scrumptious too. If that is not enough, her strawberry-rhubarb jam is the family’s favorite. Ina Garten and Martha Stewart, look out!

Here are some things we all should know about Rhubarb. First, it is a perennial vegetable and it primarily is used with fruit in desserts and jams. Second, the leaves are poisonous, so eat the stalks only. It is easy to grow and likes some cool weather to thrive. It grows from short thick rhizomes and loves a site that is well-drained, fertile and in full sunlight. When planting be sure to use compost, rotted manure and anything high in organic matter, but do not add any chemical fertilizers to the plants during the first year. It enjoys plenty of water so do not be stingy. Mulch the plants generously with straw and manure to help retain moisture and discourage weeds. Once you have established the plants and after the first spring frost, apply a light sprinkling of high nitrogen fertilizer (25-3-3 or 10-6-4) when the ground is thawing or just thawed. Dig and split rhubarb plants every 3 to 4 years and be sure to divide when plants are dormant in early spring or fall.

When should I eat it? Harvest the stalks when they are 12 to 18 inches long. After three years the harvest period runs about 8 to 10 weeks long. If the stalks are thin this means the plant needs to be fertilized. Always leave about two stalks per plant to insure continued production. With proper care your plants could produce for up to 20 years. When harvest time ends, the stems may die back, be sure to remove all plant debris and cover with up to 4 inches of mulch, preferably well-rotted compost.

The stalks are commonly cut into pieces and stewed with additional sugar until soft. The resulting compote sometimes is thickened with corn starch and used in pies, tarts and crumbles. When making a jam a greater quantity of sugar is added  with pectin. The more common use in the United States is the making of  pie. The plant is nicknamed the “pie plant” going back to 19th century cookbooks. Rhubarb is often paired with strawberries to make one of my favorite pies. Add some whip cream or vanilla ice cream and you have an unbelievable desert!

When choosing some red varieties, which tend to be more tender, consider, Valentine, Crimson Cherry, Canada Red, Victoria, Timperley Early and Early 
Albert. The color of rhubarb stalks can vary from the commonly associated 
crimson red, through speckled light pink, to simply light green. The stalks are commonly described as crimson stalks. The color results from the presence of anthocyanins and varies according to variety. The color is not related to its suitability for cooking.

The history of Rhubarb is unbelievable. The Chinese call rhubarb, “the great yellow” and have used its root for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. It has also been thought of as a laxative for several millennia. Rhubarb originally comes from two Greek words for rhubarb. Rheon from the Persian rewend, later becoming the Latin word rheum. The other Greek word is rha, an ancient name for the Volga River. It made its way to Russia via the Silk Road. No matter what name, this has been enjoyed in many cultures for many centuries. In the United States, it is thought that John Bartram in Philadelphia was the oldest cultivator going back to 1730, with Thomas Jefferson planting at Monticello in 1809.

Rhubarb has been used throughout history for digestive complaints including constipation, diarrhea, or stomach pain, symptoms of menopause, menstrual cramps and inflammation of the pancreas. This plant also contains nitric oxide, which is responsible for the dilation and contraction of blood vessels. It helps to protect the smooth interior lining of the arteries from excessive plaque accumulation. By adding this to an already healthy diet, it will give you an edge over vascular conditions.

The recipes for deserts are many and if you want to try something really delish try braising some beef short ribs in rhubarb and onions. So, it is that time of year when you can go out into your own garden and make a yummy little desert.

This recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp is easy & delicious!

Rhubarb, it’s just that simple.