Sweet and Savory Recipes for Rhubarb

Dandy pie plant creates dishes for every palate.

| March/April 2009

Rhubarb Cultivation
Rhubarb Kitchen Tips 

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.

Carol Mills
6/1/2012 3:08:11 PM

My favorite recipe using rhubarb - Mulberry pie. Add 1 cup diced rhubarb to 2 cups mulberries. Compliments and brings out the flavor of the mulberries. Sweeten and thicken as you would any other fruit pie. Tastes just like blackberry pie. (The mulberry stems dissolve with cooking, you'll never know they were there)

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