My rhubarb obsession runs deep. Growing up a highly food-motivated child, stumbling on something edible in the wild was an electrifying kind of excitement for me. Which is why my mom’s lovingly-tended peas would always vanish before she could harvest (I’m pretty sure she blamed “those rotten deer”). After a long New Brunswick winter, when I’d nose out a patch of taut, ruby stalks emerging from the barely-warm ground, it was jump-up-and-down thrilling. I knew from a young age that what I’d found beneath those monstrous leaves had significance: I’d discovered the first fruit of a long and delicious pie season!
Rhubarb’s rosy-cheeked appearance at the farmer’s market still makes my stomach flip with excitement. It bears the first bright, perky freshness of spring amidst a sea of tired, starchy winter root vegetables. And perhaps the best part? It delivers the sweet promise of ripe, crimson strawberries in the not-too-distant future. Just for fun, here are some scarcely-known facts about this beloved spring treat.
6 startling facts you didn’t know about rhubarb:
- NOT FRUIT: Now that I’ve gone and called it a fruit (to the dismay of the keenest readers), I’ll concede that it is actually a vegetable. Technically, fruits grow out of the flower and bear the seed of the plant – edible parts from any other part of the plant are veg. In our part of the world, it masquerades as a fruit because we mostly only eat it sweetened.
- NOT WESTERN: Its culinary origins are Asian, where it was recognized as a vegetable and treated as such. It only became popular as dessert when it was brought to England – probably because sugar was abundant, and someone realized how delicious it was in pie.
- NOT EDIBLE: The leaves are highly toxic due to their potent concentration of oxalic acid – also found in anti-rust products, bleach and metal cleaners.
- THE DOSE MAKES THE POISON: The same oxalic acid (in much lesser quantities) also contributes to the characteristic and much-loved sourness of the edible stalks. (And before you get freaked out, it is also present in nuts, spinach, beets and lots of other healthy foods.)
- NUTRITIONAL POWERHOUSE: Its glowing scarlet hue is owing to anthocyanin flavonoids, colourful free-radical scavengers known to protect against a plethora of diseases.1
- RHUBARB PHARMACY: Rhubarb was first used in Chinese medicine to alleviate digestive ailments. It is also used to treat cold sores2, has potential benefits in improving kidney function in kidney failure patients3, and has research exploring its medicinal uses in a myriad of other conditions.
This month, rhubarb is cropping up at farmer’s markets everywhere. In fact, I just bought four pounds (and that was showing restraint). If you, like me, can’t reign in your rhubarb purchases, or are lucky enough to have your own backyard patch (I’m so jealous!), you might like to think beyond dessert to use up your bounty.
5 delicious ways to use rhubarb outside of the pie:
- STEW: borrow from Persian and Afghani cuisine and braise the vegetable with meats in a sumptuous savoury stew with spinach.
- TOPPING: finely chop stalks then macerate with a pinch of sugar, then mix with red onion, jalapeno, and cilantro to spoon over grilled meats.
- BREAKFAST: bubble a bunch down to a thick, juicy compote (I like to toss in a vanilla bean or a coin of fresh ginger). Slather on buttered whole wheat toast like jam, or swirl it into thick greek yogurt along with Bio-K+ (to ensure your daily dose of spring probiotics), then top with chopped nuts or granola.
- CONDIMENT: simmer it down with brown sugar, onion and ginger for a tangy Indian chutney. Serve with grilled meats or include on a cheese platter.
- SWEET: tie on an apron and make a batch of rhubarb muffins, rhubarb-yogurt cake, or rhubarb bars.