It’s time for rhubarb!
National #ApplePie Day is in May — even though all our apples were picked last fall, and apples are not in season in our part of the world. But rhubarb is in season, and makes wonderful pies, crisps, and cobblers, breads and muffins, and cookies and cakes.
Rhubarb is usually teamed with strawberries, but it can be paired equally well with other berries, like blueberries or blackberries. And it can add tartness to other fruit, like apples, peaches, or plums.
In fact, rhubarb is known as the “pie plant.” It is a vegetable, not a fruit. The tart, red and green stems are cooked in many dishes — both sweet and savory.
Rhubarb’s large, fan-shaped leaves are toxic due to a high concentration of oxalic acid (though you would have to eat five pounds for a lethal dose). This is why only the stems, which have a lower concentration of oxalic acid than the leaves, are used in cooking.
There are many varieties of rhubarb, but the ones grown for food are R. rhabarbarum and R. rhaponticum. Garden rhubarb probably originated in Siberia and Mongolia. It arrived in Europe in the 17th century. From there, it was brought to the New World by English and German immigrants.
Rhubarb is a good source of potassium and vitamin C, and was used to prevent scurvy in Russia and Alaska in the 1800s. Mostly water, it is very acidic (3.1 pH) and low in calories, although this is countered by the large amount of sugar used when cooking it. It also has calcium, but this mineral is bound by oxalic acid and thus not well absorbed.
Some varieties are purely medicinal, like R. Oofficinale and R. Palmetum. In Chinese medicine, the roots of these plants are dried, peeled, and ground into a yellow powder which is used to treat stomach ailments, constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion. It is also used externally for burns, boils, sores and inflammatory skin conditions.
Because it is so tart, rhubarb did not become popular in the kitchen until processed sugar was readily available and inexpensive in the 19th century. The first recipes appeared in cookbooks in 1850.
Since then, rhubarb has been celebrated around the country. On the third Saturday in May, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, one of the largest rhubarb festivals offers sweet treats and recipe contests.
Rhubarb thrives in cool climates, doesn’t need lots of sunshine, and grows well in moderately acid soil, so it thrives in our North Country region. Its large, fan-shaped leaves come up as soon as the ground thaws. This hardy buckwheat-family perennial is one of the first edibles in our northern gardens.
Stalks should be fresh, crisp, smooth and bright. Avoid thick stalks, as they’re often tough and woody.
Use rhubarb soon after cutting or buying – it will wilt quickly, even in the fridge. Chop and freeze the extra for use later in the season.
Use glass, stainless steel or other non-reactive pans when cooking rhubarb. Rhubarb has a high acid content, and the acid can react with the metal, turning its bright red hue into a dull brown when cooked in aluminum, iron or copper.
Those thick, succulent, bright red stalks yield the first yummy desserts of spring. Here are two recipes.
Rhubarb Apple Muffins
1 stalk (about 6″) rhubarb, or 1 cup, sliced
1 apple (about 1 cup, cored and chopped, no need to peel)
2/3 cup maple syrup
1 cup plain yogurt, sour cream, or combination
3/4 cup rolled oats
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup all-purpose or unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or raisins
Cinnamon topping (optional)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash rhubarb. Slice thin and place in bowl.
Wash apple; quarter, core, and chop. Add to the rhubarb bowl. Pour maple syrup over. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat eggs. Beat in sour cream and fold in oats. Set aside.
In a third bowl, combine flours, baking soda, salt, spices and raisins or nuts.
Add rhubarb mixture to oats mixture alternately with flour mixture; stir to combine.
Line muffin tins with paper liners (or butter them). Fill 2/3 full.
To make the topping, combine sugar, flour and cinnamon in a small bowl. Drizzle in melted butter and stir until combined. Sprinkle over muffins just before baking.
Bake about 20 minutes, or until golden.
Makes 1 dozen muffins or one 9-inch bread loaf pan.
Rhubarb Apple Custard Pie
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 or 2 apples (about 1 – 1/2 cups, sliced)
1 or 1 1/2 cups sliced rhubarb (1 or 2 stalks)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Line a pie plate with the pie crust.
In large bowl, beat eggs until light and lemon colored. Beat in sugar and vanilla. Beat in sour cream and yogurt. Add salt and flour, and stir in.
Peel, core and slice apples. Arrange apple slices on the top of the prepared crust.
Fold rhubarb into custard mixture gently, and pour over apple slices in prepared crust. Top with a lattice crust, if desired. Bake in preheated oven until the center begins to set (30 – 35 minutes).
Or bake as an open pie, and top with whipped cream after pie cools.
Option: Substitute 1 1/2 cups berries for the apples.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.