For some gardeners it isn’t really spring until the first rhubarb pokes its way through the still-chilly soil, the red- and pink-streaked stalks contrasting nicely with dark green leaves to provide some color in the early garden. And the stalks have traditionally provided a welcome burst of flavor after winter’s heavier, blander fare.
Rhubarb also has a long history of medicinal use; Chinese healers have used the plant’s root as a laxative and to support the gastrointestinal system for thousands of years. In fact, rhubarb wasn’t grown for kitchen use until the 17th century, when the increasing availablity of inexpensive sweeteners made it easier for cooks to overcome its decidedly tart taste.
That sharp tang is one reason why many rhubarb recipes call for considerable amounts of refined sugar. But natural sweeteners, such as the honey and freshly squeezed orange juice in the recipe at the right, can readily be used to tame rhubarb for table use. Stevia, agave nectar and date sugar are other options; you may have to experiment with small batches to find the level of sweetness that suits you best. Nutritionally, rhubarb is worth the effort, supplying calcium, fiber, potassium and vitamins C and K.
Although a vegetable, rhubarb is generally treated as a fruit because of its traditional use in pies, crumbles and other desserts; it pairs well with fruits such as oranges and strawberries, and with such sweet spices as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Rhubarb can also be stewed, made into sauces for roast meat, used in punches and other beverages, and preserved through canning, freezing or drying. Be careful when adding additional liquid, as the stalks themselves contain a good deal of water. Always use nonreactive cookware because of rhubarb’s high acid content.
When purchasing fresh rhubarb, look for thick, crisp stalks with no wrinkles, strings or decayed ends. (The leaves, which are mildly toxic, should always be discarded.) When kept in a plastic bag, the stalks can be refrigerated for up to three days. Any tough outer strands should be peeled before slicing.
Need to bring a touch of colorful spring to your table? Rhubarb may be just what you’re looking for.
Honey Rhubarb Compote with Vanilla Bean
1 lb fresh rhubarb stalks (leaves removed), washed and chopped small
1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice (juice from 1 medium-sized orange)
1/4 cup wildflower honey (orother local honey of your choice)
1 whole vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1. Place rhubarb, orange juice, honey and vanilla seeds and pod in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; reduce heat to medium-low and let cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rhubarb is cooked down and the compote is slightly thickened.
2. Remove from heat and let cool. Remove the vanilla pod. Use right away or store in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
Yield: 2 cups. Analysis per tablespoon: 12 calories, <1g protein, no fat, <1g fiber, 3g carbohydrate, <1 mg sodium
RECIPE AND PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BOUNTY HUNTER (WWW.THEBOUNTYHUNTER.CA)