One of my favorite spring desserts is a slice of warm
rhubarb pie with ice cream.
Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is a cool-season perennial
vegetable that was introduced to the United States at the end of
the 18th century. Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East
more than 2,000 years ago. It was initially cultivated for its
medicinal qualities. Rhubarb forms thick red, pink or green
petioles (stalks) with large, extravagant green leaves.
Rhubarb grows best where plants will receive full sun in
fertile, well-drained soils that have good organic matter. Plant
rhubarb in the early spring while plants are dormant. Avoid
harvesting the plants the first year, and only lightly harvest
for one to two weeks during the second year. Full harvest may
begin the third or fourth year, depending on the plant size.
Harvest for eight to 10 weeks.
Rhubarb has a sour, tart, tangy flavor; you could say it is
mouth-puckering. To minimize the tartness, most people find it
necessary to sweeten rhubarb with sugar, honey or fruit juice.
Rhubarb is often combined with strawberries. Rhubarb is rarely
eaten raw. Rhubarb can be purchased from a U-pick grower or a
supermarket. In central Illinois, harvesting usually begins in
late May and can continue until late July.
The flavor depends on the cultivar. Red-stalked reliable
cultivars include Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, MaDonald,
Ruby and Valentine. Victoria is a reliable green-stalked
cultivar. Generally, the deeper red the stalk, the more
flavorful. Medium-size stalks are generally tenderer than large
Harvest 10- to 15-inch stalks by snapping them rather than
cutting them off. Grab a stalk down where it emerges from the
ground, and pull up and slightly to one side. Harvest only
one-third of the stalks from a plant at one time. Immediately
after harvesting, cut off and discard the leaves. If purchasing
rhubarb, look for flat, crisp stalks, not curled or limp.
Rhubarb leaves should never be eaten. They contain oxalic
acid, a toxin that can cause poisoning when large quantities of
raw or cooked leaves are ingested.
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If not immediately using the rhubarb, it can be stored in the
refrigerator, between 32 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit, with 95 percent
relative humidity, for two to four weeks. For best results, store
unwashed stalks in perforated plastic bags in the crisper drawer.
Rhubarb is 95 percent water, and 1 cup of diced rhubarb contains
about 26 calories, 2 grams dietary fiber and 351 milligrams of
potassium. Due to its acidic nature (pH of 3.1), avoid cooking
rhubarb in reactive metal pots such as aluminum, iron and copper.
Rhubarb can be prepared and served many different ways -- pies,
tarts, breads, cobblers, cakes, jams, sauces, puddings and salads.
My favorite rhubarb recipe is a longtime family favorite.
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 cup brown sugar
4 cups of chopped rhubarb
1 yellow cake mix prepared according to directions on the box
Into a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, pour melted margarine and
sprinkle with brown sugar. Spread chopped rhubarb over the sugar
mixture. Prepare a yellow cake mix according to the directions on
the box. Pour batter over rhubarb. Bake at 350 degrees for 45
minutes or until cake is done.
For more information on growing and using rhubarb, visit the
University of Illinois Extension Watch Your Garden Grow website at
[By JENNIFER FISHBURN,
Illinois Extension, Logan-Menard-Sangamon Unit]