Brillat-Savarin said, “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.” While I have been equally in awe of each, I would probably choose the new dish.

This week as I gazed at my neighbor’s robust rhubarb patch, I pondered what new rhubarb creation could be made that would bring close to as much joy as discovering a new star. It’s springtime in New England and that means making “everything rhubarb.” Local farmer’s markets and stores exhibit proof that rhubarb-based jams and pies are perennial favorites. I don’t know if this is because we lack vision or because these two choices satisfy us so much we are loathed to look for other options. I would vote the latter.

Is rhubarb also known as “pie plant”? In The First Four Years, when Laura was making her first dinner in her new home, she referred to “pie plant” in the garden and that she must make a pie. After one bite, she realizes the pie is horribly sour. While logical, but not a confirmation of origin, some plants in mid-west homestead gardens which look like rhubarb are labeled pie plant.

 

Marco Polo brought rhubarb from China to Europe. From there, the seed made its way to North America via Benjamin Franklin. Related to buckwheat, it is a perennial vegetable dating back to 2700 BC. We typically consider it to be a fruit, mostly because we tend to serve it as a dessert and because in 1947 the United States Customs Court decided to call it a fruit as we eat it as we would a fruit. However, by scientific definition, it is a vegetable because we eat the stem of the plant. Don’t eat the leaves! They’re toxic, due to the presence of oxalic acid (think corrosive), which causes kidney failure and other ailments. During WWI, British troops were told to eat rhubarb leaves as a nutritional resource. Consequently, many fell seriously ill. I considered how the troops could have been convinced, as the leaves are spiny and smell rather peculiar. Then I remembered food was scarce during World War I, and likely there was great desperation to eat anything that seemed even remotely edible.

The tart stalk can be eaten raw or cooked. I like the younger stalks raw, right out of the ground, no sugar needed or I juice them. However, my favorite version is cooked rhubarb. At least, as far as I have experienced. The downside of eating it cooked is it needs an added sweetener, as cooking it exacerbates the tartness. Rhubarb is high in Vitamin K, potassium and manganese, which are good for bone and blood health; and high in Vitamin C for fighting infections. Chinese medicine uses rhubarb for fighting infections and aiding digestion. With digestive issues, I can attest rhubarb juice has helped me.

Cooked rhubarb has a high level of calcium. On par with salmon and spinach, one cooked cup of rhubarb contains as much calcium as a cup of milk.

Unwashed rhubarb can be stored raw in the refrigerator for about a week. For longer storage, cube the stalks and then freeze or cook and process in canning jars.

strawberry rhubarb

The following recipe is a foundation for a batch large enough to can or freeze. Use as a topping for toast, pancakes, or ice cream; freeze it in ½ cup servings to be used in smoothies; or eat as is.

  • 1 lb. cubed rhubarb
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • Vanilla, cinnamon, or cardamom to taste (optional)

In a non-aluminum pot, stir all ingredients together. Let set until the honey begins to draw the juice from the rhubarb. Over medium heat, constantly stir and bring to a boil until reaching desired consistency. For a smoother texture, remove from the heat just after it first begins to boil. Then in a blender, puree in small batches. Be careful. The pressure from hot liquids can build up in a covered blender and explode. Add back to the pot and continue to boil. Remove from heat and process jarred rhubarb in a hot water bath or cool to freeze or refrigerate. It will store well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

When frozen raw or cooked or canned in jars, rhubarb sauce will take you from spring into the following winter, allowing enjoyment of a bite of springtime when the cold north winds of New England are blowing.