freshly picked home grown rhubarb

After the mammoth task of creating our kitchen garden, the first thing we planted was rhubarb and the same plant has treated us for 5 seasons with no signs of decline.  Rhubarb is so easy to grow, I don’t do anything at all to it and it produces beautiful fat, red stems.  The only small trouble with it is what to use it for when you have so much.   Last summer I felt we hadn’t used as much as we could have which is always a shame when you have it growing in the garden so this summer I am determined to do more with it.  The main reason for it being underutilised is that we don’t tend to eat many desserts and a flourishing rhubarb plant will make a lot of rhubarb crumble or tart!  I have some exciting recipes up my sleeve to try out once the plant gets going.  Here in the mountains, the plant can be harvested from May through to October which is a pretty incredible season for one plant.

A bit of background to rhubarb

Rhubarb started to be used for culinary purposes in the 18th century with the earliest recipes recording it’s use as a filling for tarts and pies.  Amazing that this is still one of the main uses for this tart and tasty vegetable.  Before this, the use of rhubarb dates back to ancient times for medical purposes and the root continues to be used in Chinese medicine for a number of ailments.

In the UK rhubarb is often associated with one of two things

  1. Rhubarb and custard sweets from the penny sweet shop. Yum.
  2. Stewed rhubarb, over stewed, stringy and brown in colour, served as school dinners or by Granny with not enough sweetener. Yuck.

Basically, it isn’t the most popular of vegetables!  I am hoping the recipes that I put on here in the next few months inspire some of you to try out this great veg.

Picking your rhubarb

I have noticed that the rhubarb available to buy, particularly in the UK supermarkets is mostly green in colour, perhaps with a splash of red.  This is due to the type grown rather than ripeness of the vegetable and the greener varieties tend to produce more hence the use in commercial production.  One of the most glorious aspects about cooking with rhubarb is the gorgeous pink colour.  If you use the green variety, the colour will be beige / yellow and is just not very attractive (as a friend found out with her trial of rhubarb gin).

Whilst there is no difference in flavour compared to the red variety, the lack of that beautiful colour has a more severe detriment.  The red pigment is anthocyanin, a super duper antioxident that is found in bright red and purple foods – think beetroots, pomegranate, blueberries, cherries, all regularly described as super foods.  Anthocyanin has proven links to lowering LDL cholestorol (the bad one), increasing HDL (the good one), diminishing cancer cells, improving vision and maintaining a healthy liver.  It has also been used for slowing the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and preliminary research shows an effect on the ability to develop type 2 diabetes.

Rhubarb = pretty good stuff

The downside is that the amount of anthocyanin is reduced through cooking and it really is not possible to eat raw – it is terribly tart (try a tiny piece if you have never done so, it takes sucking a lemon sherbet sweet to the the next level!)  The smallest decrease is through low temperature simmering.

If buying rhubarb, I recommend finding some at a farmer’s market that is the red variety, fat stems that do not look dry and preferably, as always, organic.

If you want to grow rhubarb, do not do so from seed. Check the variety before buying a plant (there are many) but also make sure that the existing first stems are already red.  In the first season, give it time to establish and pick stems slowly, ideally late in the season. After this, you can be pretty ruthless and take many stems at once.

Rhubarb recipes

Rhubarb Gin  Flavour a gin with rhubarb for a pink and summery tipple
Rhubarb & Lime Crumble with Real Custard  Classic dessert with a twist of zesty lime
Rhubarb & Ginger Slice  A nod to our Australian friends with this tasty afternoon treat



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