Food for Thought: Rhubarb

Rhubarb is an ingredient that intrigues me. Technically a vegetable, rhubarb is regarded as a fruit. Although beautifully pink, rhubarb tends to be sour and highly acidic. While having a history in medicinal purposes rhubarb is in fact not very nutritious and is mainly made up of water, not to mention that they leaves are mildly poisonous.

Having said that ,rhubarb still intrigues the culinary world, having come into popularity with a history of being the ‘good for you’ food. Simply cooked with sugar, added to sauces, made into stuffings and desserts rhubarb always creates a fantastic flavour sensation.

Facts and Details
Rhubarb Rheum rhaponticum is part of the sorrel family and although treated as a fruit it is in fact is a vegetable. Rhubarb is a cool weather perennial plant that requires the winter dormancy period to store energy and stimulate the next season’s growth.

Unknown to many rhubarb does not ripen and turn red like with fruit and the depth of pinkness in the stalks consequently does not indicate sweetness. There are known to be 60 different varieties of rhubarb grown throughout the world today.

In Australia rhubarb is not sold by variety, however a few that are superior are the Cherry Cultivar and the Ever Red. Rhubarb is grown in open fields and is available all year round. In winter Australian rhubarb is thinner and deeper in colour where summer rhubarb grows faster due to stronger and longer amounts of sunlight resulting in greener large and tougher stalks.

In Europe however, where rhubarb has a popular history, it is sold in two forms: forced and garden. Garden rhubarb grows out doors in the warmer months in natural climates. Forced rhubarb, however is cultivated during the cold winter months in a unique way.

The Candle Lit Rhubarb
Forced rhubarb is grown in North England in a region known as the Rhubarb Triangle. In this region rhubarb is left to grow unharvested for two years, where is stores energy from the sun. In winter the rhubarb is transferred by hand into dark nursery sheds to be ‘forced’.

Here rhubarb is left to grow in dark candle lit warm sheds. The darkness, warmth and wetness mean that the rhubarb concentrates on growing longer. Unlike garden rhubarb, which grows fast with sunlight, forced rhubarb is tricked into growing, and does it slowly. The warmth of the dark nurseries tricks the rhubarb’s hormones into triggering growth. Without light they feed on the energy they have stored in their roots for the last two years.

This results in a bright pink stalk that is tender and sweet and retains its colour after cooking. They are also characterised by their tiny curled iridescent green leaves.

Indigenous to Asia rhubarb was originally not grown for consumption but was regarded as an important drug. The rhubarb root was used for many illnesses especially regarding the stomach, lungs and liver.

It is believed that Marco Polo was the first to bring the drug from Asia to Europe where it became so popular that it tripled the cost of opium.

Rhubarb is thought to have first been consumed between the 17th and 18th century when the English opted to eat the stalks as a means to get the drug into the body. Rhubarb became a very popular vegetable in England during war times as it grew easily and was known to be good for you – in which specific ways however, many were unsure. Interestingly this did not stop parents feeding rhubarb stalks to children with a bag of sugar to dip in when sweets were to expensive.

Although rhubarb has a reputation as being very good for you it is in fact mainly made up of water. It does however contain vitamin C, high levels of calcium, and is rumoured to speed up your metabolism. It is interesting to consider however, that to make rhubarb taste great one generally need to add a fair amount of sugar, making is nearly impossible to be consumed in a healthy way.

How to Cook
Rhubarb traditionally is stewed with a combination of sugar, orange zest or vanilla. This method of stewing is also usually used as the base for many sweet dishes such as souffl├ęs, fools and trifles.

Rhubarb’s natural sourness is a fantastic way to enhance the flavours of other ingredients and brighten more neutral ones.

Today rhubarb is matched alongside meats and fish to add a surprising spectrum of flavour. Rhubarbs sourness makes it perfect for relishes and is incredibly refreshing making it a perfect dessert.

Traditionally Stewed Rhubarb
Place rhubarb cut into 1.5 cm length into a non reactive pot with a generous amount of caster sugar, the zest of an orange, a couple of tablespoons of water and cover with a lid. Cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes then lift the lid and stir. Cook for a few more minutes until soft.

Cool and store in the refrigerator. Add to custard, ice cream or eat with natural yoghurt for breakfast.

Savory Rhubarb Relish
750g rhubarb stalks, cut into 2cm lengths
500g cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 onions, finely sliced
250ml white wine vinegar
250ml white wine
300g light soft brown sugar
2tablespoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cardamom pods, bashed slightly
1teaspoon ground allspice
1teaspoon ground ginger
1tablespoon salt

Place the rhubarb, apples and onions in a heavy-based, non-reactive pan with the vinegar and wine, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes until the onions are tender.

Add the sugar, mustard seeds, cardamom, allspice, ginger and salt and continue to simmer for 45 minutes to one hour, stirring occasionally, until it is thick.

Remove from the heat for ten minutes, and then spoon the chutney into hot, dry, sterilised jars and seal. Keep in a cool, dry place for two weeks before opening.

Makes 1 litre.

This relish adds a tangy and spicy balance to gamely meats and oily fish. The rhubarb has a tendency to turn slightly brown during long cooking but the taste is still fantastic.

Rhubarb and Walnut Stuffing
1/2 bunch rhubarb, finely diced
150-200g fresh breadcrumbs
2 small white onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
3 tablespoons walnuts, chopped roughly
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Sweat the onions garlic and rhubarb in a little oil until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the walnuts and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in 150g of breadcrumbs. Add the egg and mix well. If the mixture looks a little wet add some more breadcrumbs. You want the mixture to feel slightly moist in your hands and can to clump together.

Use as a stuffing for a loin of pork or chicken.


Anonymous said...

Very informative post.
We live near Wakefield, the home of candle-lit rhubarb. The have little wood fires in the shed, which heat the water, which travels round the sides of the sheds in big, old pipes. Another world!



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