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.
I quite enjoy rhubarb pie, crumble, crisp and sauce, alone or in combination with other fruits. However, in my research and recipe search, I was looking for savory, rather than sweet, uses of rhubarb. The reason for this is that when I smell and taste rhubarb, I don’t immediately think of desserts, since it has flavorful, savory characteristics. Rhubarb has an unusual aroma that is all its own, yet hauntingly familiar. It has a pleasant, woody smell, a certain fragrance that I have found only in two other plants – angelica and the leaves of calendula. When chewing on a piece of the stalk, the woody taste is present. After the initial sour taste, it is vegetable-like and green tasting and also a bit fruity. In fact, the flavor and mouth pucker of rhubarb remind me of sorrel. Indeed, sorrel and rhubarb are in the same family. So why not try using rhubarb in recipes the way we use sorrel? Sorrel is used in sauces and soups; it is delicious when combined with potatoes, spinach and other greens, and wonderful combined with grains and legumes.
My quest led me to a few – very few – recipes using rhubarb in main and side dishes. In Indian cuisine, I found recipes for both lentils and rice cooked with rhubarb. An Afghan spinach dish is stewed with rhubarb. A number of Middle-Eastern meat stews contain rhubarb, as in the dish from Iran called khorest. The majority of recipes incorporate a sauce or a chutney used on many types of meat ranging from ham, pork, lamb and beef to poultry. These could be sauces or glazes on the outside of the meat while it cooked, or used as a topping or garnish. With inspiration, I delved into the savory sensibilities of rhubarb and came up with the following pleasing dishes, as well as a few favorite sweet recipes.
Spring Potage with Potato and Rhubarb
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
About 3 large potatoes, peeled if desired, diced (5-6 cups)
1 large or 2 medium stalks of celery, sliced crosswise (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 large or 3 medium stalks of rhubarb, sliced crosswise (about 2 cups)
5 large cloves garlic, minced
4 cups hot vegetable stock
2 or 3 fresh bay leaves
About 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme or sweet marjoram, or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled thyme or sweet marjoram
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups whole milk or 1 cup heavy cream
Melt butter with olive oil in non-reactive soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, stir, and cover for 5 minutes. Stir again, and add potatoes and celery. Toss well and cover for 10 minutes, stirring a few times.
The potatoes may begin to stick a little; just scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen them. Add garlic and cook another 1 to 2 minutes.
Add rhubarb, stock, bay leaves and thyme; stir and cover. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes at low simmer (do not boil), until potatoes are tender. Remove from heat.
In blender, in small batches, puree about half the soup. Return puree to soup pot. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add milk/cream to soup, stir well, and taste for seasoning. Serve hot. Yields 6 to 8 servings.
This Indian-inspired dish can be made with whatever vegetables you have on hand. The tang of the rhubarb works well with the sweetness of the root vegetables, and the curry complements the dish. Adjust with a little more heat from cayenne or other hot peppers. Cooking times for lentils will vary depending upon how old they are – generally they should cook in 30 to 40 minutes, covered, over medium heat.
1 pound brown lentils
6 cups water
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
6 to 8 large cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 large or 3 medium carrots, sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 medium or 2 small turnips or parsnips, sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 medium to large sweet potato, diced (1 1/2 to 2 cups)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon curry powder
2 to 3 stalks rhubarb, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick (about 1 1/2 cups sliced rhubarb)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
Wash and pick over lentils and place in heavy 3-quart saucepan with tight-fitting lid. Add water, onion, garlic, salt, olive oil and bay leaves; stir. Cover and bring to boil. Add carrots, turnips, sweet potato and curry powder. Reduce heat to cook at a simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed; stir occasionally. If lentils become too dry, add about 1/2 cup water, as needed.
When lentils are cooked, add rhubarb and parsley and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper or more curry powder. Serve hot as a stew or over rice. Yields 6 to 8 servings.
This yummy, hearty muffin is crammed full of flavor; both tart and sweet.
1 generous cup sliced rhubarb
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup white whole-wheat or whole-wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Scant 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup toasted pecans, coarse chopped
1/3 cup sun-dried cherries, coarse chopped
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
Heat oven to 400°F. Combine rhubarb and sugar in small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir and cook for 2 minutes until sugar dissolves; cover and cook for 2 minutes more. Uncover, stir and cook for 1 minute more. Rhubarb should be tender, but not overcooked, and there will be some liquid in pan. Set aside to cool.
Melt butter and, using pastry brush, brush muffin tin with butter. Reserve remaining melted butter.
Sift flours, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg together into medium bowl. Stir brown sugar, pecans and cherries into flour mixture and toss well.
Lightly beat eggs in separate bowl. Stir in buttermilk, remaining melted butter and rhubarb with its juice. Add vanilla, stir and spoon evenly into tins, almost filling them.
Sprinkle a little brown sugar and a dash of nutmeg on top of each muffin. Bake about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes before removing from tin. I gently grab the top of the muffin to loosen it and then turn it gently back and forth in the tin; once loose, just lift them out. Yields 12 muffins.
This flavorful chutney will cause your taste buds to tap dance. It is sweet and tart and, if you add the chile, piquant. It is a tasty accompaniment to bland dishes, curry and rice. It also can be used as a condiment with bruschetta or bread with slices of cheese or meat, or spread with goat or cream cheese with a spoonful of chutney as garnish.
2 medium apples, preferably 1 red-skinned and 1 green-skinned, cut into eighths lengthwise and cored, sliced crosswise about 3/8-inch thick (about 2 cups, diced fine)
1 large onion, (1 1/2 to 2 cups, coarsely chopped)
3/4 cup dried figs, quartered lengthwise if small, otherwise coarsely chopped, or raisins
Scant 1/2 cup candied ginger, minced
Piece of onion studded with 10 to 12 whole cloves
1 chile pepper, chopped fine, optional
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup organic apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
2 cups rhubarb pieces, cut lengthwise into 1 1/2-inch strips
6 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In heavy-bottomed skillet, combine apples, onion, figs, candied ginger, clove-studded onion and chile pepper, if desired. Sprinkle with brown sugar and pour in both vinegars. Place over medium-high heat, stir, and bring to simmer. Cover pan, reduce to medium heat and cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add rhubarb and garlic, cover and cook for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Taste – it should be sweet and sour and full of flavor – and adjust if necessary; I found it didn’t need salt, but you might like some. The fruit and vegetables should be soft but not overcooked; cook a few more minutes if necessary. Add vanilla, stir, cover and remove from heat.
Let cool to room temperature, pack in sterile jars and keep refrigerated. Serve at cool room temperature. Yields about 2 pints.
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp
This versatile filling can be used for a 9-or10-inch pie with a top and bottom crust or a top crust with a streusel topping, or used as a cobbler filling. It is also good as a stewed fruit, cooked about 5 minutes longer on the stovetop. It can also be prepared with raspberries in place of the strawberries.
In the spring, I like to add sweet woodruff, a harbinger herb, to the fruit mix, however, it is delicious without any herb. Sweet woodruff doesn't have much of an aroma when picked fresh, but when it is dried, infused, or cooked, it imparts a homey flavor, rather like adding a taste of vanilla and a scent of fresh mown hay. Serve this dessert with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream, garnished with a sprig of sweet woodruff. If you don’t have sweet woodruff, lemon balm is a very good substitute.
4 cups rhubarb, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 cups fresh strawberries, halved
About 1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons cornstarch
10 or 12 sprigs sweet woodruff, about 3 inches long
1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
For fruit filling, place rhubarb, sugar, cornstarch, and sweet woodruff in saucepan and bring to simmer. Reduce heat, stir, and cook for about 4 minutes. Add berries, stir and cook 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Let mixture cool a bit and remove woodruff sprigs.
Heat oven to 400°F and butter 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Transfer fruit to buttered dish.
To make crisp topping, combine flour, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg in bowl and stir to blend. Cut butter into crisp ingredients with pastry blender until just blended. Spread mixture over fruit and bake about 30 minutes, until crisp is golden brown and fruit is bubbling. Serve warm or at room temperature. Yields 8 servings.
Variation: Use fruit filling with homemade pie crust to make a pie.
If you prefer the biscuit-like dough of a cobbler, use the following in place of the crisp topping. Make the fruit filling as instructed above.
1 2/3 cups unbleached flour
2 1/2 tablespoons vanilla sugar, or plain sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup milk
Vanilla sugar for sprinkling
Heat oven to 400º F and butter 2 1/2-quart baking dish. Transfer fruit to buttered dish.
To make cobbler topping, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture until in pea-sized lumps. Add milk to flour mixture and mix with fork until just blended.
Drop dough from large spoonfuls over fruit. Sprinkle dough lightly with vanilla sugar. Bake cobbler for 35 to 40 minutes, or until fruit is bubbling and dough is turning golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Lemon Balm Custard with Rhubarb Sauce
Although rhubarb sauce is traditionally served on pudding or custard, this is good on just about any dessert from ice cream and cake to scones and biscuits, or even peach pie. This recipe is from my Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes,(Herbspirit, 2005).
Lemon balm is one of the first herbs in our spring gardens. If you don’t have lemon balm, you can use about a tablespoon of dried lemon verbena leaves or 2 fresh bay leaves. If you don’t have these herbs on hand, the lemon zest and vanilla give adequate flavor for this simple, classic custard. The tartness of the rhubarb sauce is a wonderful counterpoint to the smooth custard. The custard can be unmolded and served warm with a warm sauce, or refrigerated and served at cool room temperature, with the sauce at cool room temperature or warmed. Both the custard and sauce can be prepared a day in advance. This sauce is great on vanilla ice cream, cake, waffles, etc.
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup fresh lemon balm or 2 fresh bay leaves
Generous teaspoon lemon zest
About 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
2 extra-large whole eggs
2 extra-large egg yolks
In heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pan, heat milk with herbs, lemon zest and vanilla bean, if you are using it, and bring to simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare pan large enough to hold 6 to 8 ramekins or custard cups.
Heat oven to 325ºF. Add sugar to milk-herb mixture and gently reheat to dissolve sugar, stirring occasionally. In small bowl, lightly beat eggs with egg yolks and pinch of salt. Pour or spoon about ½ cup of warm milk into eggs and whisk to incorporate. Then add all of milk to eggs and blend well. Add vanilla extract, if not using bean.
Pour custard mixture through a strainer to remove herbs, zest and vanilla bean, pressing them gently to remove their essence. Pour custard mix evenly into custard dishes. Carefully fill pan holding custard dishes with hot water. Place pan in oven and bake custards until they are set, about 40 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Remove custards from hot water and place on baking rack to cool. Serve warm, or cool and refrigerate. The custard may be served in dish it was baked in, or unmolded by gently running spatula around edges of dish and inverting onto serving plate.
If you have lemon balm, or sweet woodruff, add handful of leaves to rhubarb sauce along with rest of ingredients, and remove them before serving. This sauce makes a little more than needed, but will keep in the refrigerator for a week. Besides ice cream, it is delicious on waffles, pancakes, biscuits and peach pie, and stirred into yogurt or oatmeal.
About 4 cups finely chopped fresh rhubarb
1/2 cup orange juice, preferably fresh-squeezed
1/2 cup sugar
1 to 2-inch piece vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Few dashes fresh grated nutmeg
Scrub rhubarb, trim ends, and cut lengthwise down center. Cut rhubarb into 1/4-inch slices.
Combine rhubarb, orange juice, sugar, vanilla bean, nutmeg and herbs, if you are using them, in large, heavy-bottomed, non-reactive saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Stir, cover and bring to simmer, which will just take a few minutes. Remove lid, stir well and reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Remove lid and stir.
Cover and let stand, sauce will continue to cook a little as it stands. The sauce should be about the consistency of thick soup. If you want it thicker, cook a few minutes more with lid off. Remove herbs and vanilla bean pieces before serving. Serve warm or at cool room temperature; it can be easily reheated. Yields 6 to 8 ramekins or custard cups.