Monday, June 22, 2009

Rhubarb - a year of food by the season

Where I live we are coming to the end of rhubarb season for most gardens. But, I am posting some tips on harvesting and using your rhubarb and how I make my crop last till the end of July.

The following mini food history of rhubarb is copied from the homecooking.about site. continues to be an amazing source of information on pretty much anything!

"Rhubarb is botanically-known as Rheum rhabarbarum and the name is a combination of the Greek word Rha for the Volga River, and the Latin word barbarum, for the region of the Rha River inhabited by non-Romans. The popular edible species, Rheum rhaponticum, originated most likely in Mongolia or Siberia. It was introduced to Europe by Italian botanist Prosper Alpinus in 1608 as a substitute for Chinese Rhubarb whose roots were used medicinally.

Ben Franklin is credited for bringing rhubarb seeds to the North American east coast in 1772, yet the red stalks did not catch on until the early 1800s, when it became a popular ingredient for pie.

In the late 1800's, rhubarb was brought to Alaska by the Russians and used as an effective counter-agent for scurvy. By the mid-1900s, its popularity was firmly entrenched in the New England states where it was used as pastry and pie fillings and also to make homemade wine."

With a little care you can harvest one plant for more than 50 years! The stalks are ready to pull when they are 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet) long. Some people say the newer, red stalks have the best flavour but I like the green ones too. If you want longer lasting rhubarb don't use a knife to cut stalks. Just hold the stalk near the base and give a twist as you pull away. This encourages more stalks to develop and also prevents rot. Remove the flowers as soon as they form as they draw nutrients from the stalks and end your rhubarb production earlier. Using the rhubarb on a regular basis encourages continued growth. I have also been cautioned not to harvest the whole plant as this will weaken growth for next year.

My favourite rhubarb recipes include rhubarb chutney, rhubarb wine, rhubarb custard pie and rhubarb upside down cake. This year I am experimenting with pink rhubarb drinks like punch and tea and slow cooker rhubarb with honey and ginger that has a multitude of uses. I also plan to make a rhubarb curry with my garden vegetables and local chicken or lamb. If you don't eat meat it wouldn't be hard to make an Indian style vegetarian curry with rhubarb as an ingredient.

NUTRITION FACTS (1 cup/250 ml raw): 25 calories, 0 g fat, 6 g carbohydrate, 2 g fibre and 1 g protein. %Daily Values are 2% vitamin A, 15% vitamin C, 10% calcium and 2% iron.

Rhubarb is high in calcium and has more than a comparable cup of milk. Unfortunately, the calcium is in the form of calcium oxalate, which blocks absorption of calcium not only from the ingested rhubarb itself, but also from any other food eaten at the same time. Cooking converts the oxalic acid into an inorganic crystalline form which can build up into kidney stones. Those who tend to develop kidney stones containing oxalate should avoid rhubarb. Rhubarb is low in calories but the sugar or sweeteners used to make rhubarb palatable raises the calorie level.

Eat the stalks only. The leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and are considered poisonous. The stalks have purgative or laxative qualities. Normal servings help promote regular elimination.

Freezing Rhubarb: Remove leaves and end of stem. Wash and slice into 1 inch (2.5 cm) slices. Freeze in plastic freezer bags.

Visit Foodland Ontario for more food facts on rhubarb and other Ontario fruits and vegetables.

© Nancy Guppy, RD, MHSc

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