Healing Kitchen

Fresh from the Market: Rhubarb
Sometimes it seems we've lost touch with seasonality of produce. But rhubarb will (we hope) always be identified with spring. Ask your grandparents about rhubarb, and they may recall the days when it was served as a "spring tonic." How welcome rhubarb's palate-rousing tartness must have been after a long winter of root vegetables and syrupy canned fruit! And, of course, it supplied nutrients lacking from the winter diet.

Rhubarb roots were used as a medicine in ancient China, and the Greeks also used it to treat various ills. Recent research bears out what the ancients believed: Rhubarb is rich in fiber, so it helps keep your digestive system in order. And rhubarb is a fairly good source of vitamin C. In the 16th century, a new species of rhubarb was grown in Europe for medicinal purposes, but it wasn't until about 200 years later that someone (probably a Frenchman, historians say) discovered that the stalks made good eating.

Buying Rhubarb
Rhubarb is a very minor crop, as commercial crops go. You'll find it in the supermarket roughly from February through June, but it's truly a pleasure to get your rhubarb from a local farm or farmers' market. It's pretty much the first crop to appear in the spring, and with the first bite you'll know that the season has arrived.

Rhubarb is beautiful stuff: Depending on the cultivar, the stalks may be a vivid pink, crimson, or pink-shaded green, and the leaves are large (up to 2 feet across) and luxuriant. But don't eat those pretty leaves--they contain a concentrated quantity of oxalic acid, which can make you pretty sick. Trim the leaves off completely.

Rhubarb stalks should be crisp, firm, and plump, with good color. Young stalks (look for smaller leaves) are more tender. You can keep rhubarb in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for as long as 3 weeks, but the fresher it is, the better.

Field-grown rhubarb has a bright, strong color, but the stalks are likely to be quite thick and sturdy, with tough strings that need to be stripped off. Hothouse rhubarb is paler in color, but the stalks are nearly always tender and stringless.

The Recipes
Although rhubarb is a vegetable, it's more commonly treated like a fruit--sweetened and served for dessert. So, this got us to thinking we ought to create something that would respect rhubarb's status as a vegetable (even if the U.S. Customs Court officially declared rhubarb a fruit in 1947). The tartness of rhubarb made us think of another very tart vegetable, sorrel. In France, sorrel is usually cooked and pureed into a sauce for fish. Thus was born our Broiled Cod with Savory Rhubarb Sauce, in which rhubarb (with the merest sprinkle of sugar) is cooked until it almost melts to a puree and is then combined with mustard, dill, and a little bit of butter to round out the flavors.

So, what else would be a savory use for rhubarb? How about chutney? A spicy condiment designed to serve alongside poultry or pork, our Fresh Rhubarb Chutney combines super-tart rhubarb with sweet-tart ingredients such as apple, currants, and red bell pepper; honey takes the tartness down a peg. Fresh ginger, mustard seeds, and black pepper add heat.

And, finally, we gave in and created a dessert. (But let's just say that this is a vegetable dessert.) If you're accustomed to having strawberries with your rhubarb, I hope you won't be disappointed; there's not a single strawberry in sight (raspberries, yes, strawberries, no). For our Rhubarb-Cheesecake Parfait, rhubarb is cooked with apple juice, honey, and allspice until reduced to a puree. Layered in a goblet with a sweetened cream cheese-sour cream mixture and topped with sliced almonds, and each person gets his own individual dessert.

Author: the Healing Kitchen staff
Date Published: 05/23/2000
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