May 6, 2008


Known to many Americans as the pie plant. This perennial herbaceous vegetable is somewhat of a misfit fruit. Officially declared a fruit by the US Customs Court back in the late 40's, just as the tomato was declared a veggie. Interesting, how they can change the botany of a plant with the swing of their gavel.

Rheum rhabarbarum and Rheum rhaponticum are the most common varieties of the Buckwheat family found in our kitchens. Beckoning the arrival of spring, this faux fruit appears in various colors ranging from greens to pinks to deep ruby reds. Native to Northern Asia, rhubarb thrives in colder climates from Spring through Summer. US cultivation began in Maine and Massachusetts during the 1820's and eventually spread west with the settlers, primarily grown in the northern states and southern Canada.

It was used in China for thousands of years as a cleansing herb. In the Middle East it is simmered into a stew known as Khoresh Reevaas. In Poland it's paired with potatoes and herbs. The Italians concocted a healthful aperitif called Rabarbaro. The English and Americans dolled it up with loads of sugar during the Rhubarb Boom, which peaked between the two world wars, hence our liking of pies, tarts, compotes, jams, and all sugary treats.

Plays nicely with: Vanilla, citrus, berries, apples, pears, pistachios, ginger and warming spices. Sweets aside it's tart flavor perks up lamb, chicken, pork and fish dishes.

Nibble on this: A good source of magnesium, fiber, vitamins C & K, calcium, potassium and manganese.

A trip to the Market: Choose bright, glossy, unblemished and firm stalks. Not too thick and not to thin, somewhere in the middle should do. (Consequentially, you'll have pulpy stringy stalks with the thick or thin.) Most rhubarb is sold without the leaves, if you have your own wild patch; lucky you, make sure to dispose of the leaves as I'm sure you've heard they are toxic due to large amounts of oxalic acid and other chemicals.

Handling Tips: Compared to artichokes these are a cinch! Simply rinse, trim off the root end and any discolored spots as well as any traces of leaves. Cut into pieces and cook.

Now I'm dreaming of buttery tart shells filled with vanilla bean cream topped with tiny strawberries & raspberries drizzled with rhubarb compote and sprinkled with toasted pistachios. You'll find my basket full of rhubarb next farmer's market trip!

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