What is rhubarb?
The sharpness of rhubarb cuts through rich meat dishes and goes well with fish or tossed in a salad with juicy orange segments. On the other hand, generous serves of cream and custard are perfect accompaniments for the tartness of rhubarb cooked with sugar and aromatic cinnamon in flans and crumbles.
Thousands of years ago, rhubarb was used for medical purposes in China, well before it was used in cooking. It was transported along the Silk Road and eventually appeared in Europe in the 14th century. It has grown along the banks of the Volga River in Russia for many centuries. The English started using it in their recipes in the 1700s and European settlers introduced it to the US in the 1820s.
In Australia, rhubarb is not sold by variety. Botanically, rhubarb is classified as a vegetable, but it is eaten as a fruit.
Rhubarb grows more slowly in winter and as a result has thinner, redder stalks than those that are grown during warmer weather, which have thicker, greenish-red stalks.
Why rhubarb is good to eat
- Rhubarb is a good source of vitamin C (needed for the growth and repair of tissues in the body) and K (important for helping your blood to clot) and contains some vitamin A (important for growth and development and the maintenance of your immune system).
- It also contains minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure), manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function) and magnesium (involved in the regulation of muscle, heart and nerve function and keeping bones strong).
- Rhubarb contains dietary fibre, which is important for a healthy bowel.
- Energy – 100 g of unsweetened rhubarb supplies 95 kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Rhubarb is a perennial plant that produces long stalks with large leaves (which are poisonous if eaten) from a base or crown every year. The plant can reach up to 1 m. Rhubarb plants grow best in temperate climates (where the summers and winters are mild) and require plenty of water. A rhubarb plant can be harvested for up to 10 years, but commercial crops are usually harvested for between three and six years.
There are two ways of growing rhubarb, either from seeds or from pieces cut from the root of another rhubarb plant. Rhubarb grown from the pieces cut from the root produces a more uniform crop.
Harvesting of rhubarb usually occurs about nine to twelve months after planting. It is done by hand and it is labour-intensive. The stalks are ready for picking just before the oldest leaves of the stalk start to turn downwards. The mature stems are picked and the youngest stalks (about half the total) left behind.
To pick rhubarb, pull the stalk downwards so that the entire stalk is removed. Do not cut the stalk and leave a stub, as this will result in rotting of the stalk. New stalks and leaves continue to grow after harvesting.
Select rhubarb that has crisp, upright, well-coloured, firm stalks and fresh-looking leaves. Avoid rhubarb that looks floppy and wilted. Also avoid rhubarb with rough and stringy stalks, which indicates that it is old and not freshly picked.
How to store and keep rhubarb
Store rhubarb stalks (remove and discard the leaves) in a vegetable storage bag or wrapped in plastic in the crisper section of your fridge. They will keep up to a week if stored this way.
How to use
- Make a tangy chutney – cook chopped rhubarb with chopped onion, raisins, brown sugar, cider vinegar and chopped ginger until soft, then serve with grilled chicken or pork.
- Add colour to a salad – toss chopped rhubarb with a little sugar and roast until soft (5 to 10 minutes), then add to mixed salad greens and sliced red onion, top with goat’s cheese (or feta) and walnuts and drizzle with a balsamic vinegar vinaigrette.
- Make a simple dessert – drizzle honey over chopped rhubarb and roast, then spread goat’s cheese over fruit bread (or brioche) and top with the baked rhubarb, the pan juices and a little honey before serving.
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