Rhubarb is the vegetable world's great comeback kid. Not only did it once suffer the indignity of being classified a fruit, but the ancient Greeks considered it the food of barbarians (from the Latin rhabarbarum), while during the Middle Ages, its roots and leaves were used as poison. To add insult to injury, rhubarb is also a colloquial term for nonsense, confused noise or empty conservation.
Despite its shady past, the rhubarb has also been revered for some of its other qualities. From as early as 2700BC, relatives of the garden rhubarb were highly regarded for their medicinal uses by the Romans, Chinese and Russians. The roots were dried and ground into powder and were prized for their purgative properties in the treatment of dysentery and intestinal complaints.
During the 16th and 17th centuries it became a valuable commodity; it was exported long distances from China and commanded huge prices in Europe. In France, it was sold at 10 times the price of cinnamon and in England it fetched more than double the rate of opium.
With the advent of cheap sugar prices in late 18th-century Europe and North America, tart rhubarb stems became part of the dessert repertoire, and the classic Victorian puddings such as rhubarb and custard and rhubarb crumble were born. In Britain during WWII rationing, families were given a stick of rhubarb and a bag of sugar to cater for any sweet cravings. These days, rhubarb is being revived by chefs and restaurants where crumbles and compotes are back in favour. It's also championed as a superfood by dieticians and nutritionists, as it's low GI and rich in potassium, calcium and vitamin C. Rhubarb's most popular preparation is in sweet things such as jams, jellies, sauces and fillings for pies. It is also used in some savoury dishes; Polish cooks prepare it with potatoes and spices; in Iran it's braised in a stew known as khorest and in Afghanistan it is added to spinach. In Italy, it is distilled to make a low-alcohol aperitivo called rabarbaro.
A favourite in old-fashioned gardens, the perennial rhubarb is a close relative of docks and sorrels whose leaves can be eaten. The leaves of the rhubarb plant should never be consumed, however, as they contain enough oxalic acid to cause death.
Rhubarb isn't usually sold by variety in Australia, although in South Australia the Cherry Red cultivar is highly regarded, and in Victoria the Ever Red is favoured. Rhubarb is grown outdoors, preferring cooler climates. It is available most of the year and is at the height of its season during winter, when it tends to grow more slowly producing thinner and redder stems. During the warmer months the stems grow much thicker and greener.
How to buy, store…
Choose firm, unblemished bright red stems; trim the flat brown end of the stems as well as the leaves, wrap in plastic and store in the crisper for up to a week.
Wash rhubarb and cut into lengths. Rhubarb has a high water content and breaks down easily when subjected to heat. Cook with the addition of little or no liquid. For pie fillings, cook rhubarb gently in a saucepan over low heat with sugar, spice and a little juice, alcohol or water. To keep its shape, it is best gently roasted or poached in the oven.
- For rhubarb and pear crumble, preheat oven to 200C. Peel, core and cut beurre bosc pears into eighths and combine in a saucepan with brown sugar, seeds of 1 vanilla bean and a little verjuice. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes or until pear starts to soften. Cut rhubarb into 4cm lengths and add to pear, cook for another 5 minutes or until rhubarb softens. Spoon into a baking dish. In a bowl, combine equal quantities of coarsely chopped hazelnuts, coarse fresh brown bread crumbs, brown sugar and butter and rub ingredients together using fingers until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Scatter over rhubarb and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve with warm custard.
- For rhubarb and ginger strudel, preheat oven to 200C. Cut two bunches of rhubarb into 2cm lengths, coarsely chop 6 peeled and cored apples and place in a saucepan with coarsely chopped glacé ginger and syrup, slivered almonds, currants and caster sugar. Cook, stirring, until rhubarb is very soft and liquid has evaporated. Using 6 sheets of filo pastry, place one piece of filo with shortest side closest to you on a work surface, brush with melted butter, top with a second sheet, brush with butter, and repeat with remaining sheets and butter. Spread rhubarb mixture at end closest to you leaving a 4cm border, fold over long sides encasing filling and roll up tightly, brushing with a butter to seal. Transfer to a lightly-greased oven tray, scatter with caster sugar and bake for 20 minutes until golden. Serve with vanilla ice-cream.
- For rhubarb mess, preheat oven to 180C. Cut rhubarb into 3cm lengths and arrange on an oven tray, scatter liberally with demerara sugar and a little rosewater and cook for 5 minutes until tender. Cool. Whisk pouring cream to stiff peaks, add rhubarb and crushed meringues and fold gently to combine. Spoon into glasses, scatter with demerara and serve immediately.
Rhubarb goes with
Almonds, apples, blueberries, cinnamon, citrus, custard, ginger, hazelnuts, honey, pastry, plums, pork, raspberries, rosewater, soft white cheeses, strawberries, trout, vanilla, yoghurt.
This forgotten vegetable is experiencing a new lease on life thanks to its pleasing tartness in both sweet and savoury dishes. Bring on the crumble.