Fresh and tangy rhubarb
Deep pink rhubarb fills desserts and cakes with the taste of spring
Sprouting in profuse bouquets of paddle-shaped leaves, rhubarb’s distinctive colour often starts as a rich scarlet at the base. Depending on the variety and how it is grown, it can flush a rosy pink the entire length of the stalk or taper to a pale green. Regardless of colour, its long, fleshy stalks have a crisp bite and tart taste. Garden rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is often prepared for sweet dishes. It is, however, a vegetable from the Polygonaceae family, which includes sorrel. Other varieties, Rheum x hybridum, have also been cultivated for taste, colour and growing conditions.
Picking and storing
Rhubarb grows well in bright sunshine, cold temperatures and well-drained soil. In its first year, it is best left to become established and develop a robust root system. In its second year, two stalks can be picked at a time and in later years up to four, always leaving a healthy crop of at least five stems. It is ready to pick when the leaf stalks are approximately 12in (30cm) long and the leaves have fully unfurled. A few of the larger stems are chosen and pulled from the base with a firm tug and slight twist. Cutting with a knife is not recommended as it does not provoke the same vigorous regrowth. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous if ingested, but they can be cut off and safely left to rot in the compost. If the rhubarb is not to be used immediately, keeping the leaves on helps maintain freshness. Placed whole in a plastic bag to retain moisture, it will keep for three to five days in the fridge. Cut into 1in (2.5cm) pieces and frozen, it can last up to a year.
Mature rhubarb stems can develop a stringy outer layer. This will mainly disintegrate while cooking, but can be stripped away with a knife. The rhubarb then simply needs to be washed, the base chopped off and the rest of the stalk cut into chunks. It is almost always prepared with plenty of sugar, to counteract its natural sharpness. Raw stalks of rhubarb dipped in sugar were once popular as a childhood treat. Now, it is most often stewed as a sauce or topping or used as a filling for crumbles and pie.
Rhubarb has been used in herbal medicine for centuries, for its positive effects on the digestive system. It is rich in calcium and vitamin K, both of which are important for strong bones. Vitamin K is also necessary for blood clotting, helping wounds to heal properly. In addition, rhubarb is a good source of vitamin C, potassium and dietary fibre.