One of the few truly seasonal foods, rhubarb is available now through the summer. Long red and green stalks of rhubarb are often used as a fruit – think pie, jam, and sweet-tart sauces – but it is actually a vegetable.
Perennial rhubarb plants must be subjected to a hard freeze in order to grow and flourish in the spring. Hearty Midwestern and Northern gardeners are rewarded for making it through the winter when rhubarb is one of the first plants – along with asparagus – to emerge from their gardens.
Rhubarb color varies by growing method and variety. At the supermarket in early spring, you may see thin stalks of bright, ruby-red rhubarb, which was probably grown in a hot house and often has a milder flavor. In late spring and summer, when many farmer’s markets open, don’t pass up the fat stalks of dull olive-green with streaks of pink. This heirloom variety rhubarb was probably grown in a garden patch and subjected to outdoor elements, thus giving it a bolder grapefruit-tart taste for which rhubarb is known.
In terms of food history, rhubarb was reportedly used in China as early as 2700 BC as a medicinal herb. According to The Rhubarb Compendium, rhubarb was introduced to America in Maine around 1800 and became popular in just two decades. During the hard times of World War I, some people were encouraged to consume rhubarb leaves because other vegetables were in short supply; unfortunately, a few people perished as rhubarb leaves are poisonous.
The stalks, however contain good nutrition. One-cup of raw rhubarb contains a good amount of vitamin C (almost 10% of the recommended daily value) and fiber (2 grams,) with only 26 calories. And yes, you can eat it raw.
What to do with rhubarb
If your grandmother was from New England or the Midwest (especially Minnesota!) you may have heard tales of how rhubarb pies were so prized, they were used as currency and swapped for services. Today, most would probably agree that a salmon-pink, sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb pie is indeed worth its in weight in gold.
But uses for rhubarb go way beyond pie. Because rhubarb stalks are 95 percent water, they stew down quickly. A pot of chopped rhubarb with only a spoonful of water and a sprinkle of sugar will turn into a jam-like sauce in less than 10 minutes. Take that sauce in a sweet direction by adding more sugar and vanilla extract, then spoon over hearty whole wheat pancakes, waffles, or a Greek yogurt parfait. For a savory sauce, season with ginger, garlic and Chinese five-spice powder to top pork, fatty fish or chicken.
Chopped rhubarb naturally turns jammy when added to cakes, quick breads, and muffins. It can be mixed with raspberries, blueberries, apples and pears and baked into a big dish of cobbler, crisp, slump, bars or bread pudding. Because rhubarb tastes lemony, it pairs well with citrus and honey. Orange zest is often added to rhubarb compotes. Rhubarb roasted with olive oil, honey and lemon is served as a side. Balsamic rhubarb quick pickles add a splash of color on a platter of charcuterie.
Rhubarb cocktails are trending. Not only does rhubarb syrup lend a pretty pink hue to a glass, but it adds natural acidic flavors to balance libations.
Recipes to try
Serena Ball, MS, RD is a food writer and registered dietitian nutritionist. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com sharing tips and tricks to help families find healthy living shortcuts. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Snapchat.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.