Rhubarb: sweet and savory
It’s hot. The calendar still says spring, but it sure feels like summer.
Summer berries won’t be here for a while — so no strawberry rhubarb pie quite yet! But our rhubarb is coming up like crazy. Rheum rhabarbarum, or garden rhubarb, thrives in cool climates from Alaska to Siberia and northern Europe. A cool-weather, hardy plant in the buckwheat family, it doesn’t need a lot of sun and grows well in our moderately acidic soil. The large, fan-shaped leaves come up as soon as the ground thaws, and the thick, succulent, bright red stalks yield the first yummy desserts of spring.
In addition to dessert, there are many other ways to use its tart, red stalks. Get fresh ideas by looking at how the ancients used the tart red stems.
Rhubarb is native to the foothills of the Himalayas and was cultivated in China more than 4,000 years ago. Its first uses were medicinal. Today, we know it has diuretic and laxative properties.
Nutritionally, rhubarb is low in calories and contains fiber, potassium and vitamin C. In the 1800s it was used to prevent scurvy in Alaska and Siberia. Mostly water, it is very acidic (3.1 pH) and low in calories. It also contains oxalic acid, which is more concentrated in the leaves, which are considered mildly toxic.
It was not until sugar was widely and cheaply available in the 19th century that rhubarb became known as the “pie plant.” Even today, its tart stalks are served in savory dishes in Asia and Africa. In North Africa, it is used in spicy tagines. In Afghanistan and Georgia, it is added to stews and served with stewed meat, like lamb. Iranians use it in koresh, a poached poultry dish smothered in a sauce. And Italians make an alcoholic drink from rhubarb.
The tartness of rhubarb marries well with fatty meats like pork, lamb, duck or goose. The celery-like stalks are also good in soups, stews and other savory dishes, where their natural acidity is a nice counterbalance to sweet or rich ingredients. There are recipes for rhubarb sauces for chicken, pork or fish.
Rhubarb is also good in muffins, bread puddings, relishes, jams, jellies, compotes and syrups — anything to which sugar can be added. Americans combine it with strawberries, the British with ginger.
At the farmers market, look for stalks that are fresh, crisp, smooth and bright. Avoid large stalks; they can be dry and woody. Use it quickly or freeze it as it is quite perishable and will wilt quickly even when refrigerated.
Always use a non-reactive pan when cooking rhubarb; glass or stainless steel work well. Due to its high acidity, rhubarb cooked in aluminum, iron or copper reacts with the metal, turning brown.
Fruit and Rhubarb Muffins
1 stalk (about 6 inches) rhubarb, or 1 cup, sliced
About 1 cup fruit — blueberries, peaches, pears, apples
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 375 degrees F.
Wash rhubarb. Slice thin and place in a bowl.
Wash whichever fruit you are using. Core apple or remove pit from peach. There is no need to peel. 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.
Pasta with sausage, beans and rhubarb
1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound pasta of your choice
1 or 2 teaspoons cooking oil
1/4 pound breakfast sausage
1 clove garlic
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
4 stalks celery
1 small green bell pepper (or a chili pepper if you like it spicy)
2 stalks rhubarb
1 1/2 cups cooked butterbeans (or 1 can)
1 cup diced tomatoes
2/3 cup grated cheese, for garnish
Bring water and salt to a boil. and cook pasta according to package directions.
While pasta is cooking, brown sausage in skillet. Add onion, cook for 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, garlic, celery and green pepper and continue to cook on low, covered, another 10-15 minutes. Add sliced rhubarb and cook 5-7 minutes more. Stir in tomatoes, beans and cooked pasta. Cook 3-4 minutes longer. Garnish with shredded cheese, and serve right away, with a tossed side salad.
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: writing and cooking. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @yvonawrites.