• Versatility of Rhubarb

    Date: 2016.03.17 | Category: Blog | Tags:

    Rhubarb. Say the word and it conjures up images of dessert: rhubarb bread, rhubarb cobbler, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb jam, rhubarb pie, rhubarb tarts, rhubarb torts… the list is long and as diverse as the people preparing it. In its natural state, rhubarb has a tart, lemony taste and sweetening it may seem to be the perfect solution its acidity.

    Rhubarb (scientifically called Rheum rhabarbarum; Rheum x coltorum), is a pretty, easy-to-grow plant with pink-to-red or light-to-dark-green short-to-long stalks, called petioles, and large, ruffly, cordate leaves. Many varieties exist and are grown and used world-wide. The stalk is the edible part of rhubarb. Its leaves contain enough oxalic acid to be considered toxic to human beings, capable of causing heart failure. Similar-looking plants also exist, not all of which are edible.

    In the United States rhubarb has historically been sweetened and used as a fruit. It is, however, a vegetable, not a fruit, and is used as a vegetable in most of the world. It is very compatible with many other foods.

    Rhubarb’s uses as a vegetable are perhaps even more diverse than its fruit-like uses. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It can be boiled, broiled, chopped raw into salads or salsas, preserved as chutney or pickles, or sautéed; added to casseroles, soups, stews, or stuffing; paired with meats as a side dish; used as a flavoring agent in dressings and sauces. Because it is used world-wide, its preparation ranges from plain to fancy to exotic.

    In Afghanistan, rhubarb is cooked with, among other things, spinach; in India, lentils; in Iran, as a khoresh (which is not exactly stew); and eaten with rice. In Greece and North Africa, it is often paired with pistachios and plain yogurt, along with local palatable seasonings, for a wholesome breakfast food. In Europe, it is commonly used as a vegetable in soups and stews.

    For a different taste experience, rhubarb’s resemblance to celery makes it a natural substitute to be used in recipes calling for cooked or raw celery. It must be noted that, unlike celery, rhubarb cooks to softness in a very short period of time and should therefore be the last ingredient added to most dishes calling for cooked celery.

    In Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, rhubarb is used as a flavoring for alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, ranging from cordials, liqueurs, vodkas, and wines to non-alcoholic coolers, juices, and seltzer waters. It adds not only its tart, refreshing flavor, but also its rubescent hues.       

    Rhubarb has long been noted for its medicinal properties. Its first recorded use as a medicine dates to about 2700 B.C. in China. Most notable to those who eat it is its activity as a mild laxative. Medicinal plants contain complex combinations of phytochemicals that affect many body systems. Its roots, which should never be eaten as food, and should never be used outside the guidance of a trained health care or natural health care provider, have long been processed by herbalists and naturopathic physicians for use in minute amount which are purported to have positive effects on such medical conditions as cold sores, diabetes, numerous digestive complaints, hepatitis, and menopause, uses which appear to be at least somewhat supported by research

    Some manufacturers and cottage industries use rhubarb volatile oils in scents for colognes, candles, and hand soaps. These are not food quality volatile oils. And finally, boiled rhubarb stalks can be used to clean metals, and boiled rhubarb leaves make an effective insecticide for garden use. As with all effective insecticides, one must be very careful to keep children pets away from the toxic boiled rhubarb leaves and the water in which they were boiled.