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Rhubarb is rich in taste, vitamins and in memories for writer | WHIDBEY RECIPES
The first column I ever wrote for the South Whidbey Record was about rhubarb, and it appeared on May 9, many years ago. If I told you exactly how many years ago, you probably wouldn’t believe it, so I won’t. Let me just say, it’s impossible that so many years can have flown by so quickly.
It seems only appropriate, then, that we revisit the subject, rhubarb, in this “anniversary” column, with updated information regarding the benefits of eating this vegetable that masquerades as fruit, along with new recipes.
First, the bad news, which really isn’t all that bad. Yes, the leaves of the rhubarb plant can make you ill, even cause death if ingested in very large quantities, but why would you do that? They contain rather large amounts of oxylates, a.k.a. oxalic acid, often used to clean out things that become clogged with lime or mineral deposits. This should be enough to tell you to leave the leaves alone, except to trim them off as soon as you’ve pulled the rhubarb stalks.
If they’re poisonous, should you then toss your rhubarb leaves onto the compost pile? Yes, go ahead and turn them into soil-enriching compost. The offending acids are quickly broken down and diluted and won’t do any harm by the time you’re using the compost.
And the good news? Rhubarb is rich in Vitamin C and calcium, high fiber, with some potassium, and zero cholesterol and sodium. Rhubarb root, by the way, plays a big role in Chinese herbal medicinal treatments. The roots are pulled after six years, dried and powdered, and used for everything from a spring tonic to a cure for digestive problems, skin rashes, diarrhea, and as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic, laxative, and a few other ailments I’ve forgotten. If you’re interested, you can buy rhubarb root powder at some herbal farms or health food stores.
One of the most appealing things about rhubarb is that virtually anyone (even I) can grow it and our marauding deer don’t eat it. I’ve taken roots of my rhubarb plants along with us each time we’ve moved, stuck them in the ground where I know they’ll get water and sun, and we’ve never been without rhubarb. It’s one of the first plants to push through the earth early in the spring, and it’s usually still producing when the first frosts hit in the fall.
It’s also one of the most versatile of fruits (remember, technically it’s a vegetable); we turn it into jam, sauce, pies, cookies, bread, cake, you name it, and I even have recipes for both hot and chilled rhubarb soup, stuck away somewhere. I can’t find them at present (I suspect they’re out in the garage in one of my boxes imaginatively labeled “Recipes”), so I can’t give you those today, but when I find them I’ll pass them along.
So, here I am, all these years later, once again extolling the virtues of rhubarb, but with a warning regarding one particular kind of rhubarb. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it is to avoid, whenever possible, getting into a “real rhubarb.”
If you’re under the age of 40, you may not have a clue as to the warning about getting into “a real rhubarb.” In years past, it was a common expression, indicating that you’d gotten into a fight, squabble, or mess-up of some sort, as in “Boy, did I get into a rhubarb with my wife yesterday” — something to be avoided, as I said, whenever possible. No, I have no idea how that expression came about.
I said there would be some new recipes for using rhubarb, and there will be, but first I’ll pass along one very old one, my mother’s recipe for rhubarb bread.
I have several recipes for rhubarb bread; this is still top of my list.
2/3 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup salad or vegetable oil
1½ cups thinly sliced rhubarb
1 t. vanilla
1 cup milk (you can use either regular milk, or buttermilk)
1 t. baking soda
¼ t. salt
2 ½ cups flour
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, optional
½ cups chopped nuts (nuts of your choice; walnuts or pecans work well)
For sauce topping: ¼ cup brown sugar
2 T. hot orange juice
Combine 2/3 cup brown sugar, egg and oil in a bowl and beat until blended. Stir in the rhubarb, vanilla and milk.
Combine the flour, salt and baking soda (nutmeg, if using); add to the rhubarb mixture, stirring just until ingredients are moistened. Stir in nuts.
Pour batter into a greased 9x5x3 loaf pan; bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 1 hour, or until bread tests done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean or with only a very few moist crumbs on it.
Heat the orange juice; pour over the ¼ cup brown sugar and stir until sugar is dissolved. Spoon this mixture over the hot bread in the pan and let stand until the juice is mostly absorbed by the bread, then remove loaf from pan onto a rack to cool completely.
Note: This bread is even better if allowed to “ripen” overnight. Wrap in plastic wrap or foil.
For several years, I’ve made rhubarb chutney when I’ve had “extra” rhubarb to deal with; the chutney is a nice accompaniment to pork, veal, venison or lamb and is especially handy to pull out in winter when you have no rhubarb. Then last year, I came across a recipe for rhubarb chutney that added some dried fruits and orange marmalade; different and delicious, especially so with ham.
ORANGE RHUBARB CHUTNEY
1 cup orange juice
½ cup orange marmalade
¼ cup agave nectar (if you’re not familiar with this yet, do try it for sweetening, for many reasons, including more diabetic friendly than regular sugar; it’s with syrups, Karo, etc. in the market
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 t. minced fresh ginger
½ t. red pepper flakes
¼ t. ground cardamom
½ cup each, dried pineapple, cherries, and plums, coarsely chopped
3 cups of ½-inch pieces rhubarb
In a large saucepan over med. heat, boil the orange juice, marmalade, agave, vinegar, ginger, pepper flakes and cardamom. Add the dried fruits, return mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer the mixture until syrupy, about 20 min.
Stir in rhubarb. Reduce heat to low and simmer until rhubarb is tender but not falling apart, about 5 minutes. Cool chutney to room temperature, then chill overnight to mellow. Keep chutney refrigerated; when ready to use, bring to room temperature Makes about 3 cups.
And finally, a rhubarb cream that is so versatile, I’ll be waiting to hear from some of you with ways you found to use it.
2 cups of ½-inch pieces fresh rhubarb
¾ cup fresh strawberry halves (hulled first)
½ cup plus 1/3 cup sugar, see instructions
¼ cup water
2 T. fresh lemon juice
3 large egg yolks
1 cup chilled whipping cream
½ t. vanilla
Combine rhubarb, water and lemon juice in a saucepan; bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat and simmer until rhubarb is very tender, about 15 minutes. Puree mixture in a food processor; chill until cold (about 1 hour).
Whisk yolks and 1/3 cup sugar in a large metal bowl to blend. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (don’t allow bowl to touch the water), and whisk until mixture thickens and an instant-read thermometer registers 140 degrees F. for 3 min., about 7-8 min. total. Chill mixture until cool (about 15 minutes).
Gently fold rhubarb mixture into yolk mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat whipping cream and vanilla in another large bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold the cream into the rhubarb mixture in 2 additions.
At this point you can put the rhubarb cream in a bowl into the freezer (covered), or you can spread it into an 8x11 dish and put into the freezer. After about 6 hours the rhubarb cream will be frozen and you can decide how you want to use it. For example, in a shortcake dessert, scoop the rhubarb cream onto the biscuit/shortcake, top with berries and another small scoop of rhubarb cream or whipped cream. Or, make or buy a lemon pound cake, slice it thin, top with rhubarb cream and berries of choice. Or, scoop rhubarb cream into a small waffle cone for a quick treat for yourself and/or the kids. Try a bowl of fresh blueberries (or blackberries/strawberries/raspberries) with a scoop of rhubarb cream on top. A small scoop of rhubarb cream on your breakfast waffle? How about making a graham/nut pie crust, softening the rhubarb cream enough to spread into the crust, then refreezing until firm and serving for dessert with a bit of whipped cream on top. As I said, versatile is the name of the game with this delightful rhubarb cream.
Margaret Walton can be reached by email at email@example.com.