Rhubarb is one of those strange looking plants that makes you wonder who in the world discovered it was edible. Well, wonder no more. Apparently the Chinese discovered it, growing in the wild, way back around 2700 B.C. The actual plant was different than what we eat today but from the same family.
An even stranger rhubarb fact is that the leaves contain poison. We cook and eat the stalks, but throw away the leaves. How the Chinese figured out the good part of the plant from the bad is a mystery. Did someone cook up a batch of leaves and die for them to discover that? We don’t know.
We do know that the rhubarb rhizome (not the same as the food) was and is used medicinally by the Chinese. It was thought to promote blood circulation, relieve pain or inflammation and inhibit intestinal infections. Marco Polo described its now well known laxative qualities when he returned with a bag of it from his travels.
Legend tells us that Ben Franklin brought rhubarb seeds to the states about 1772. It was slow to catch on amongst residents because of its sour taste. High in vitamins A and C; potassium, calcium and fiber, it was used as a spring tonic and an effective counter agent for scurvy. Later, as sugar became more readily available, it took on a new life as a popular pie filling and eventually a wine.
A very old New England cookbook of mine has a recipe for a rhubarb tonic that says in parenthesis: “A drink children like.” It calls for two pounds of rhubarb to be washed, sliced and cooked slowly with 3 cups of water for about 20 minutes. The mixture was then strained; one-third cup of sugar added to the liquid and it was heated until the sugar dissolved. After it cooled the poor kids had to drink it. Bet that got them going!
So what is there to do with a bagful of rhubarb? Well, first, you make many, many pies. Then you experiment with cakes, jams, sauces and relishes. Finally, you chop it, spread it out on a baking sheet and freeze it. Once frozen, place it in heavy duty freezer bags to use during the winter. I don’t recommend canning it because it cooks to smoosh and is not very appetizing looking.
Be sure to cook fresh rhubarb in non-reactive stainless steel or Teflon coated pans. Its high acid count will react unpleasantly with aluminum, iron or copper pots. Enjoy the following recipes that are variations on some old favorites.
3 cups sliced rhubarb, (1-inch pieces, fresh or frozen)
2 pints strawberries, mashed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine, cut in small pieces
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup butter or margarine
½ cup quick oatmeal
¼ cup flour
¾ cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large saucepan combine rhubarb, strawberries and lemon juice. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Combine sugar and cornstarch; stir into strawberry rhubarb mixture. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly thickened; remove from heat.
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in butter pieces with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
In a separate bowl, beat together buttermilk, eggs and vanilla; stir into crumb mixture. Spread half of the batter evenly into a greased 9x14x2-inch baking dish. Carefully spread filling over the batter. Drop remaining batter evenly over filling with a tablespoon. Set aside.
In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in oatmeal, flour and sugar until mixture is crumbly; sprinkle over batter. Lay foil on lower oven rack to catch any hot, juicy spills. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until cake tests done. Cool cake in pan on rack. Cut into squares to serve.
1 pound rhubarb, cut in 1/-inch slices (about 3 cups)
1 (16 ounce ) can pitted tart, red cherries, drained
1-1/4 cup sugar
¼ cup quick cooking tapioca
5 drops red food coloring
1 double crust pie dough recipe
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Combine sliced rhubarb, cherries, sugar, tapioca and red food coloring; let stand 10-15 minutes. Roll out pie dough and line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Pour in filling.
Roll out remaining pastry to about a 10-inch round. Cut strips of dough, ½-inch wide. Lay half of strips on top of filled pie at 1-inch intervals. Fold back every other strip. Starting at the middle, weave crosswise strips over and under. Dampen edge of pie slightly with water and fold lower crust around entire rim of pie, pressing well to seal. Flute pastry edge.
Set pie on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake 40-50 minutes. Cool slightly and serve with vanilla ice cream.