Rhubarb Trivia and a Rhubarb Recipe
First, A Rhubarb Ruse
The first time I tasted rhubarb I was only about ten years old. My mom’s Uncle Steve had two long rows of rhubarb roots planted behind his house and they grew tall, ruby red stalks. Uncle Steve was showing my cousin and me the garden and I said something about the big red celery. Instantly he knew had a couple of victims ready to supply a good chuckle. Bending over, he chopped off a long red stalk and cut a couple of lengths for us to try. “You’ll love this. I’ll probably have to keep chasing you from the garden,” he said. His taunts made the promise of a big bite of rhubarb even sweeter.
Chomp, chomp. As our faces instantly twisted up in contortions Uncle Steve had his morning laugh on us. His wife, Julie, saw the whole show from the porch and brought out a cup of sugar to show us how rhubarb should be eaten raw. After some assurances, we dipped the ends into the sugar bowl and tried again. This time we loved the mixture of tastes.
Seven Little Known Facts About Rhubarb
- Rhubarb, or Rhuem rhabarbarum in Latin, has a long history. Some accounts say it’s native to southeast Russia while some put its origins as native to the cooler regions of Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, and the Himalayas. Asia would seem to win out here as an ancient Chinese text on herbal medicines from 2,700 BC mentions its use.
- Classical Greeks and Romans also used it as a medicinal plant. In his excellent book on food science, “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee tells us the name comes from the Greeks who called it the food of the barbarians. The barbarians (foreigners) were the people beyond the Rha (Volga) River.
- The leaves can be poisonous due to the high levels of oxalic acid they contain. However, oxalic acid can be found in the stalks also and in other vegetables such as spinach. One expert calculates you would need to eat 34 pounds of stalks in one sitting to cause severe symptoms. I love all foods, but I can’t think of anything I want to eat 34 pound of in one sitting. Anyway…don’t eat the leaves.
- The Italians, who always know a good thing when they see it, have cultivated rhubarb since the 17th century. The English used it as a medicinal from at least the 16th century and in 1686 it was compared to sorrel, its smaller cousin. Rhubarb wouldn’t show up in recipe texts until about 1806 when Mrs. Rundell mentioned it in her early “cookery book.” America wouldn’t catch the rhubarb wave until after the Revolutionary War when Ben Franklin sent seeds back from France. In Polish cuisine it’s cooked with potatoes and herbs. This is how Uncle Steve and Aunt Julie used it when he wasn’t getting teasing kids.
- The tartness of rhubarb screams to be subdued with sugar, and it takes a considerable dose to do the job. When calmed though, rhubarb’s unique flavor pairs wonderfully with strawberries. It is so often used with strawberries in pies it’s sometimes called the pie plant. I’ve heard ginger is the pairing of choice in England and can imagine it would compliment the flavor very well. Hmmm, do I hear a ginger/rhubarb chutney calling?
- We know that rhubarb is a vegetable. However, in 1947 the U.S. Customs court in Buffalo, N.Y declared rhubarb a fruit since that is how it is most often eaten. Go figure.
- Rhubarb grows best in moist, well drained soil with plenty of sun. Every four or five years dig the root and separate into pieces making sure you have a bud on each piece before replanting.
Do you have a rhubarb recipe you would like to share? Here’s one using Pomona’s Pectin.
- 2 cups mashed strawberries (about 4 cups whole strawberries)
- 2 cups cooked rhubarb (chop rhubarb, add a little water, cook until soft, measure)
- 2 teaspoons calcium water
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- ½ cup up to 1 cup honey or ¾ cup up to 2 cups sugar
- 2 ½ teaspoons Pomona’s pectin powder
- Wash jars, lids, and bands. Place jars in canner, fill canner ⅔ full with water, bring to a boil. Turn off heat, cover, and keep jars in hot canner water until ready to use. Place lids in water in a small sauce pan; cover and heat to a simmer. Turn off heat and keep lids in hot water until ready to use.
- Wash, remove hulls, and mash strawberries. Prepare rhubarb. Measure fruit into sauce pan.
- Add calcium water and lemon juice and mix well.
- Measure sugar or room temperature honey into a bowl. Thoroughly mix pectin powder into sweetener. Set aside.
- Bring fruit mixture to a full boil. Add pectin-sweetener mixture, stirring vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes to dissolve the pectin while the jam comes back up to a boil. Once the jam returns to a full boil, remove it from the heat.
- Fill hot jars to ¼” of top. Wipe rims clean. Screw on 2-piece lids. Put filled jars in boiling water to cover. Boil 10 minutes (add 1 minute more for every 1,000 ft. above sea level). Remove from water. Let jars cool. Check seals; lids should be sucked down. Eat within 1 year. Lasts 3 weeks once opened.
- Note: If you’re not sure if your jam is sweet enough, taste it after the pectin is dissolved and jam has come back up to a boil. Not sweet enough? Add more sweetener and stir 1 minute at full boil.