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Saturday May 8, 2010

Rhubarb is flourishing in home gardens this time of year. When little else is available in the garden to eat, rhubarb stands guard while gardens are being prepped for planting. From the little red nubs that push through the soil in early spring to the long stalks with fanning leaves, rhubarb has a colorful history.

Rhubarb first appeared in the United States in the late 1770s when the English brought the plant to the American colonies. Known as the "pie plant" rhubarb is traditionally made into sauce or pie, hence it’s nickname.

Rhubarb is easy to grow in the Northeast and most New England farms and small-town homes had their own private rhubarb patches. If you don’t have fresh rhubarb growing in your garden or available from a neighbor, you can purchase rhubarb in the supermarket.

If you are a rhubarb lover and have space available, rhubarb is easy to grow and makes a colorful and interesting plant to add to a flower bed or garden. Contact the University of Vermont Master Gardener Help Line at 800-639-2230 or e-mail the Help Line at for information on growing rhubarb.

Rhubarb is an ancient food. Varieties of rhubarb were used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes centuries ago. The word "Barb" is derived from the Greek name for rhubarb, which means "something that comes from the barbarian county of Rha" (an ancient name for the Volga River).

Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but it is used like a fruit (sauces and pies). Not sure if this is true, but one rhubarb cookbook I read stated that rhubarb officially became a fruit on July 17, 1947, when the US Customs Court of Buffalo, N.Y., declared it so! Since rhubarb was principally used as a "fruit" in cooking and "fruit" carried a lower import duty than a "vegetable," the court decided as a practical matter that rhubarb was a fruit!

Even though rhubarb has dark green leaves, they are not edible; in fact the leaves are toxic. The rhubarb stalk is the edible part of the plant. The stalks are very tart and require sweetening to make them edible, raising the calorie content.

A half cup of cooked unsweetened rhubarb sauce has 29 calories; a half-cup of sweetened rhubarb can have upwards of 140 calories! Rhubarb can be sweetened with other fruits like apples, pears, strawberries, pineapple, etc. instead of sugar or honey to cut calories.

Two cups of fresh, diced rhubarb, stewed down to about 1 cup supplies about 20 percent of the daily recommendation of Vitamin C, potassium and manganese, as well as, over 4 grams of dietary fiber. Even though rhubarb contains calcium, the oxalates that are also present in rhubarb, bind with the rhubarb’s calcium making it unavailable for the body to use it.

Whether you pick rhubarb from the garden or buy it at the market cut the leaves and root end off before storing in the refrigerator. Rhubarb can be stored in a plastic bag in the crisper for a week. Before cooking the rhubarb, trim stalks and any bruised areas and wash.

The two popular methods for making rhubarb sauce are stewing and baking. A stainless steel or non-stick pan works well. Rhubarb is highly acid and may react to some metals such as aluminum. Add 2Ž3 cup of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Add 4 cups of cut rhubarb (six to eight stalks). Reduce heat, and simmer over low heat for about five minutes, or until rhubarb is tender. Add sugar to taste, between 3Ž4 and one cup is sufficiently sweet for most people. If you like less sugar, start with a smaller amount and taste-test the fruit before serving. Cold rhubarb sauce will not taste as sweet. Rhubarb can be baked without added water in a shallow, greased, covered dish in a 300°F oven.

Rhubarb is easy to freeze. Freeze cooked sauce in freezer containers. Leave a half-inch of headspace. Label and freeze the closed container. To freeze raw rhubarb, wash rhubarb stalks and dry well. Chop stalks into desired lengths for pies, breads or other treats and freeze in amounts called for in your favorite recipes. You can also freeze whole stalks of rhubarb and cut into desired lengths while still partially frozen. When using cut-up rhubarb in your favorite recipe for bread, cakes, cookies, etc. do not allow rhubarb to thaw completely; use it as soon as you can break it apart.

Rhubarb is easily overcooked particularly when stewed for sauce. The key to rhubarb sauce that has texture and shape is not to add a lot of liquid. One pound of raw rhubarb will yield about 33Ž4 cups of finely diced rhubarb and two cups of cooked sauce.

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Split rhubarb stalks lengthwise before dicing. Large stalks may need to be split into four to six lengths before dicing. When split into finer threads, the rhubarb will not need to be peeled. Pile cut stalks on a cutting board and slice cross-wise into one-quarter inch wide pieces.

Add sweetener (sugar, honey, or maple syrup) to diced rhubarb and let the cut fruit sit for at least an hour or overnight. Stir occasionally as the sweetener draws out the juices and dissolves the sugar. You can add a couple of tablespoons of fruit juice (orange, cranberry, pineapple or wine) to give a special flavor. For a tart sauce about one cup of sugar to four cups of sliced, diced rhubarb. Bring the sweetened rhubarb to a quick boil, remove pan from the heat and cover it. Let stand for a few minutes until rhubarb softens.

Rhubarb can be cooked in the top of a covered double boiler over boiling water for about 15 minutes-, with or without sugar, do not stir. Or bake diced rhubarb without added water in a greased, covered shallow dish for 30 minutes in a 300°F oven.

Grated orange or lemon peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger (ground or fined diced candied ginger) can be added to cooked rhubarb for flavor. Rhubarb makes a great jam and can be combined with other fruits to make preserves, jellies, conserves, or chutneys. Recipes are available at the National Center for Home Food Preservation at

Here are some other ways to incorporate rhubarb into spring meals:

-- Cook rhubarb with apples or pears to make sauce. Could be left chunky or run through a food mill. Sweeten to taste after cooking.

-- Sauté diced rhubarb and garlic in olive oil and broth. Add mustard and use as a sauce for chicken or pork.

-- Use rhubarb alone or with apples, blueberries, raspberries, or cranberries to make a fruit crisp. Cover the top of the combined fruits with an oatmeal or whole wheat crumb topping.

-- Add chopped rhubarb to muffins or pancake batter.

-- Use rhubarb sauce as a topping for pancakes or waffles.

-- Mix rhubarb sauce into a fruit smoothie or add to cottage cheese or plain yogurt.

Enjoy the flavor and taste of the first fruit of the season!

Dianne Lamb is a nutrition and food specialist with the University of Vermont Extension.