Sweet and Savory Recipes for Rhubarb
Dandy pie plant creates dishes for every palate.
The rhubarb stalk is the only edible part of the plant.
Although this plant took on the moniker of “pie plant” in the 1800s, rhubarb has a long, celebrated history that involves much more than pie. Our common culinary rhubarb, Rheum x cultorum (used to be known as R. rhabarbarum L.), also called garden rhubarb, is the rhubarb we cultivate for food. While related, Rheum palmatum, R. tanguticum and R. officinale, known in their native China as Da-huang, are ancient medicinal plants. The astringent roots from these plants have been used as a purgative for more than 5,000 years since they have such a strong laxative action; and they have also been used for treating burns, dysentery, appendicitis, toothache, various skin maladies and more. All rhubarbs, both culinary and medicinal, are members of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), and the name is believed to have originated from the Grecian Rha, their word for rhubarb. The medicinal rhubarbs of the past had deeply lobed leaves, while the more recent culinary rhubarbs have huge, heart-shaped leaves with less-defined lobes.
The rhubarb stalk (petiole) ranges in color from bright red and green and is the only edible part of the plant. Many varieties of culinary rhubarb are downright showy and ornamental. Some of them are huge, some small. Some have fat, thick, ruby-red stalks, while others have pale, thin lime-green stalks, and all of them have prolific leaf growth. The leaves of all rhubarb plants are toxic and should never be eaten; they have caused many fatalities around the globe. The leaves contain calcium oxalates and anthrone glycosides that are deadly to humans.
Rhubarb is used as a food and in beverages in Europe and America, although the Chinese also make wine and liquors from rhubarb stalks, and the Italians make a well-known liqueur called Zucca or rabarbaro from rhubarb. There are numerous recipes for alcoholic fermentations; rhubarb wine was very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and Europe.
In reality, rhubarb is a leafy vegetable. However, in 1947, the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York, passed an official ruling that rhubarb should be classified as a fruit, since that is how it is principally eaten. Mostly, we think of rhubarb as a dessert, or prepared in confections like pies, tarts, compotes, puddings, stewed fruit, jellies, jams, sweet sauces, crisps and crumbles. The British love their rhubarb with custard or a rhubarb crumble with a layer of custard. I believe these sweet treatments of the rhubarb stalks are a result of the general reaction to its tartness. Since it is very tart to the palate, most recipes add sugar or sweetener to counteract the sourness.
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