When we were young children, my friends and I would wander through the conjured “forests” of our neighborhoods, which were little more than grassy backyards and pockets of crabapple trees. Using Frisbees and flowerpots as gathering tools, we pretended to be on the hunt for wild foods — foraging our way through twigs, rocks, and seeds, we imagined a world where we both found the food and prepared it all on our own.
The yard of the neighbors that lived behind my parents connected with ours, and so I felt that I had free range to explore the pickins’ in their enclosure. Rhubarb, I later found it to be called, always grew plentifully in the neighbors’ yard. Tall, stalky, and magenta in color, it was a strange plant that my friends and I felt compelled to explore. We would snap off stalks at a time, run it back to our hideout, and use a garlic press to “juice” this exotic plant. For anyone that’s ever cooked (or even seen) a rhubarb, you know that juicing it with a garlic press is simply impossible. But to us, it was food for the taking. Eventually, after several minutes of awkward mashing, we would give up on juicing and just suck on the stringy stalks, only to discover how painfully sour they were. A day’s end, food foraged, and all was well.
Much to my friends’ chagrin, rhubarb contains a sharp sourness that is hard to ignore. But it is the extreme tartness of the rhubarb that gives it so much of its health properties. In general, fruits and vegetables with tart or sour flavors tend to be effective in aiding digestion and cleansing. The rhubarb is no exception; in fact, rhubarb is a high-fiber food, and combined with its astringent properties, it is amazingly successful as a diuretic and laxative.
For this reason, rhubarb has a long history of being used strictly as medicine. Made into tinctures, syrups, and poultices, the plant had been used around the world in the treatment of constipation, diarrhea, gastro-intestinal disorders, menstrual disorders, sores, and ulcers for thousands of years. You may be shocked to learn that in the 5,000 years rhubarb has been cultivated, it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was grown for culinary purposes! Until that point, rhubarb was grown in Asia and shipped all over the world as medicine. Due to the risks and expenses of land transport, buying rhubarb would cost a person 10 times the cost of cinnamon, 4 times the cost of saffron, and almost 3 times the cost of opium. In the 1500’s, for people to pay top dollar for rhubarb over opium, you know it must have been potent stuff!
Nowadays, rhubarb is usually paired with strawberries as a popular summer treat, most often baked up into sugary pies, crisps, and sauces. Because rhubarb is so sour on its own, it needs sugar to be palatable. Don’t mistake rhubarb for a fruit; although it is often cooked with sweet fruits, rhubarb is technically a vegetable and can be treated like either in a recipe.
Rather than cook rhubarb in the same old fashion (paired with strawberries), why not experiment with something a little different. While strawberries are a delicious summer fruit, they all too easily overwhelm the natural flavors of rhubarb. Rhubarb pairs quite well with other foods, those that are naturally sweet, tart, crisp, and citrusy. Here are a few summer recipes that use rhubarb without the strawberries, giving them a chance to shine on their own. The ingredients are seasonal, the procedures are simple, and best of all, no garlic press is required.
Rhubarb Watermelon Salad With Mint
Makes 4 servings.
2 stalks of rhubarb, strings removed and cut into small cubes
1 cucumber, cut into small cubes
1 cup watermelon cubes
½ cup fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup feta cheese, optional
1 lime, cut into wedges, for garnish
- Place rhubarb, cucumber, watermelon, and mint in large mixing bowl; toss to combine.
- In a small mixing bowl, whisk olive oil, lime juice, honey, salt, and pepper together until smooth. Pour over salad, add feta cheese, and toss until thoroughly coated.
- Serve cold with fresh lime wedges.
Gingered Rhubarb Crisp
Makes 8 servings.
2 pounds fresh rhubarb, cut into small cubes
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon finely minced candied ginger
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup oats
¼ cup flour
¼ cup finely chopped pecans
¼ cup unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
¼ teaspoon sea salt
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly grease 8×8-inch baking dish.
- In large mixing bowl, combine rhubarb, honey, flour, ginger, zest, and vanilla; toss to combine.
- In separate large mixing bowl, combine sugar, oats, flour, pecans, butter, and salt. Mix with fingertips until mixture clumps together.
- Spoon rhubarb mixture into baking dish; sprinkle topping evenly over filling. Place in oven and bake 30-40 minutes, until juices begin to bubble and topping browns lightly. Remove from oven and cool before serving.