Royal Rhubarb – The Versatile Vegetable

When you visit your local farmer’s market or grocery store this spring, you’ll likely come across leafy bundles of fresh rhubarb. The graceful, crimson stalks take centre stage as one the first crops out of the ground every spring.

Rhubarb looks kind of like celery, but it’s much prettier. And while we tend to think of it as a fruit, possibly because it pairs well with other fruits such as apples and strawberries, rhubarb is technically a vegetable (although legally it’s a fruit, which is another topic for another story!)

DID YOU KNOW: Rhubarb is a source of calcium, Vitamin C, and potassium. One cup, raw and diced, has 27 calories. Keep in mind, too, that rhubarb freezes very well.

Early species of rhubarb grown in 17th century Europe were used for medicinal purposes, in particular as an anti-inflammatory and digestive aid. People soon discovered that, though you can eat rhubarb raw, it has a sour, brutally bitter taste. When sugar prices dropped in 19th century England, homemakers began experimenting with rhubarb in desserts—with delicious results.

When’s the best time of year to try cooking with rhubarb? We asked Hillary Penn, manager of Herridge’s Farm Fresh Market in Clarkson. 

“Usually we get some rhubarb in late April that is greenhouse grown and then the field crop is ready in May. Every year is a bit different depending on the weather,” Penn says. “The field rhubarb stalks are usually thicker and firmer, but the greenhouse grown crop still has great flavour.” 

Wondering how to select the right rhubarb? 

Look for firm, crisp, plump stalks that are crimson or pink in colour (tip: the darker red the stalks are, the sweeter and more intense their flavour) along with perky leaves that are a deep shade of green. Note: the leaves may look delicious, but don’t eat them! They are poisonous due to their high levels of oxalic acid.

The traditional way to cook rhubarb is to wash the stalks, cut them into small pieces, and then stew them until tender. There is no need to add much water; like many other fruits and vegetables, rhubarb already contains a great deal of water that comes out during the cooking process. While still hot, sugar is added to the rhubarb to counterbalance its natural acidity. 

Besides adding a delightful tartness to otherwise sweeter desserts, rhubarb’s unique flavour cuts through the richness of meat and (especially cheese) very well. On a charcuterie board, rhubarb chutney pairs beautifully on a cracker with a rich blue cheese or brie. Pickled rhubarb makes a unique and colourful addition to a spring salad. Serve stewed rhubarb over vanilla ice cream for a yummy dessert. You can even make rhubarb wine!

If not using rhubarb right away, you can wrap it in damp paper towel or newspaper to stay fresh in the fridge. 

TIP: If not using rhubarb right away, you can wrap it in damp paper towel or newspaper to stay fresh in the fridge. 

For rhubarb lovers, there is nothing quite like that first moment a strawberry rhubarb pie comes out of the oven on a spring day. Beyond this traditional dessert, there are many other ways you can prepare and enjoy rhubarb this season:

If you hanker for savoury:
Rhubarb chutney pairs well with pork or duck

  • Combine rhubarb with vinegar and sugar and cook down into a sauce that functions as a base for salad dressing
  • Rhubarb, tomato and onion salsa
  • Try blending rhubarb with honey and soy sauce for a new spin on teriyaki sauce
  • Baked chicken with apricot rhubarb glaze
  • Rhubarb can be cooked down with onions, tomatoes, brown sugar and spices for a twist on a traditional ketchup

And if you hanker for sweet:

  • Cocktail: stew rhubarb until you have a thick syrup; use with gin or tequila with mint and lime
  • Lemon bundt cake with berry rhubarb glaze
  • Rhubarb ice cream with cinnamon and nutmeg
  • For a British flair, combine rhubarb with custard and whipped cream to make a “rhubarb fool”
  • Apple and rhubarb pair well together; try combining them in a crumble or crisp
  • Chocolate brownies swirled with rhubarb compote
  • Substitute chopped rhubarb instead of cranberries in a muffin, paired with walnuts 

FUN FACTS: The word “rhubarb” also means a heated dispute or controversy! 

“Every year, when temperatures start to fall, it seems like people are desperate to cling on to the last bit of sunshine,” Penn explains. “We get bakery fresh pies delivered to Herridge’s every week and I can’t tell you how many customers come in looking for a strawberry rhubarb pie in September!

“It’s difficult to find when it is not in season,” she continues,” so I recommend buying it in the spring, chopping it into pieces and freezing it (uncooked) so that you have some on hand should you get a craving for it. Note: If you’re thawing rhubarb to prepare a recipe, be sure to save any liquid and use that along with the chopped pieces when measuring it out. 

TIP: The rhubarb plant is a perennial you can purchase for your own garden. “If properly cared for, you could easily get several pounds worth of beautiful fresh rhubarb right in your own yard,” Penn shares. “It’s beautiful as well as delicious!”

By  Ilana Clamp

Local Links

Herridge’s Farm Fresh Market

Cousins Market

Battaglia’s Lorne Park Marketplace

The Apple Market

Foodland Ontario

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