Rhubarb’s culinary history starts not with the rosy stalks but rather with the roots. Medicinal use of rhubarb dates back to ancient China. The roots are still part of the Chinese pharmacopeia and contain compounds with medicinal effects ranging from laxative to anti-cancer. By the 1700s, people were eating the sour stalks, often raw, dipped in a bowl of sugar. In early North American literature, it is referred to as “pie-plant,” and it is part of Nordic, Russian, Canadian, British and North American food culture. There are festivals celebrating all things rhubarb and restaurant menus featuring locally grown rhubarb.
The plant is believed to have originated in the harsh climate of Mongolia, which is perhaps the reason that it is one of a very few vegetables that can be grown as perennials in Alaska. Rhubarb can be “forced” in greenhouses, making it available all year, but it is generally a seasonal treat, available fresh for only a month or so in the market. I sometimes think of it as the first garden harvest since it is ready before berries and most other cultivated plants.
The edible rhubarb leaf stalk doesn’t have the same medicinal qualities as the root, but it does provide vitamin C, calcium and fiber and small amounts of vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and iron. Before sugar is added, it is a very low-calorie food.
Harvest from well-established plants, when the leaves are fully developed and the stalks are plump (don’t harvest the first year from new plants and take only a few stalks the second year). Pick rather than cut stalks by pulling upward and twisting, removing the whole stalk from the base. Leave an ample number of stalks to keep your plants vigorous. The broad, impressive leaves of the plant should be cut from the stalk, and trimmed stalks should be kept refrigerated. Leaves are relatively high in oxalic acid and should not be eaten, although they can be tossed on your compost pile.
If you have decided to pucker up and take advantage of this nutritious seasonal treat, you will find that rhubarb is very easy to use. Because it is very acidic, prepare rhubarb in enameled, glass or other nonreactive cookware. Gently rinse the stalks and trim away any bruised or damaged portions. Once cleaned and chopped into cubes, it can be stewed with a little sugar and water (just enough to keep it from sticking) and eaten like applesauce. You can take it a few steps further and create a cold rhubarb soup by pureeing the cooked, sweetened rhubarb, adding some cardamom or cinnamon and garnishing with whipped cream. Almost anywhere you would use a tart fruit— for example, in pies, cobbler or shortcake — you can use rhubarb. For a summer beverage, extract the juice, sweeten and combine with lemonade for a light refreshing drink.
The long, smooth, red stalks have started showing up in Fairbanks markets, probably a month before we’ll see our first local harvest, but I’ve already spotted foot-high shoots in some parts of town. For more information about rhubarb, including rhubarb recipes and preservation tips, refer to UAF Cooperative Extension publication FNH-00064.
Leslie Shallcross is the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at (907)474-2426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.