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Rhubarb

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Rhubarb, which looks like a pink celery stalk, is botanically a vegetable, but it is used as a fruit, largely in pies and sauces. (In some areas, it is referred to as "pie plant.") The ancient Chinese cultivated the plant for its roots, which reputedly have medicinal properties, and it didn't gain acceptance as a food in the United States until the late 1700s.

The roots and leaves aren't eaten; indeed, the leaves are highly poisonous. At one time, the toxicity was attributed to their exceedingly high levels of oxalic acid, a substance that can interfere with iron and calcium absorption. However, the exact source of the leaf toxin has yet to be determined, since rhubarb stalks also contain significant amounts of oxalic acid (as do a few other foods, such as spinach).

Rhubarb stalks are extremely tart and they require sweetening to make them appetizing. This can increase their calorie content considerably. For example, a typical recipe for rhubarb pie calls for 4 cups of diced rhubarb to which 1 1/4 cups of sugar are added. This converts 104 calories' worth of rhubarb to more than 1,000 calories. An alternative to this is to sweeten rhubarb with other, sweeter fruits, such as apples.

Varieties

Rhubarb comes in two main varieties: hothouse-grown (pink or light red stalks, with yellow leaves) and field-grown (dark red stalks, with green leaves). The hothouse variety has a somewhat milder flavor and is less stringy.

Availability

Field-grown rhubarb appears on the market from April through June or July. Hothouse rhubarb, which is cultivated in California, Oregon, and Michigan, is mainly harvested from January through June. Rhubarb is also available frozen.

Shopping

Rhubarb is sold loose and in 1-pound bags, like celery. Whichever type is available, choose well-colored, good-sized, straight, firm crisp stalks. Avoid stalks that are limp. If the leaves are attached, they should look fresh and crisp; small leaves usually indicate younger, more tender stalks.

Storage

If you buy rhubarb stalks with the leaves still attached, cut off the leaves as soon as you get home. Never eat the leaves, raw or cooked: They are poisonous. Place the stalks in plastic bags and store them in the refrigerator crisper, where they will keep for about a week.

Preparation

Hothouse rhubarb is ready to cook after it is rinsed and the tops and bottoms of the stalks are trimmed. For stewing or sauce making, cut the stalks into 1" to 2" lengths. Mature field-grown rhubarb may need to have the stringy fibers removed: As you cut the stalks, peel the coarse fibers from the back of each piece with a paring knife. One pound of cut-up rhubarb is about three cups.

Baking: Place cut-up rhubarb in a glass baking dish and sprinkle it with sugar (about 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of rhubarb). Cover tightly and bake in a 300°F oven until tender, stirring once. Then taste and add more sugar, if necessary. Cooking time: about 30 minutes.

Stewing: Since its difficult to gauge how much sugar you'll need to sweeten rhubarb, add a small amount (1/4 cup per pound of rhubarb) in the beginning when you start cooking it. Place cut rhubarb in a nonaluminum saucepan with sugar, orange zest, fresh ginger, or a vanilla bean, and 2 tablespoons of water per pound of cut-up rhubarb. Stir until well combined. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently until tender. After cooking, add additional sugar or honey, if necessary and cook for another five minutes to dissolve it. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Rhubarb/1 cup diced raw

26
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
2.2
1
Carbohydrate (g)
6
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
5


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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