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Perennial plants to some, and a complete mystery to others these greenish pink celery-like stalks are doing their best to escape any classification and play by the standard kitchen rules.
However, this curious leafy wonder has its rightful place in the world of plants. Although it is widely considered a fruit and served in the same manner as fruit, rhubarb is a vegetable that belongs to the family of Polygonaceae.
And although it is, by the magic of greenhouse production, grown throughout much of the year, rhubarb usually becomes available to customers in spring just before the arrival of actual outdoor rhubarb.
And although the deep red rhubarb is widely considered to have the strongest taste and the best quality, that is nowhere near the truth.
As we can see, rhubarb is a plant that is shrouded in mystery. So, in order for you to know does this veggie has a place on your plate, or how you should even approach it, we will need to find the answer to a couple of questions like what does rhubarb taste like. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start this story from the beginning.
The Origins of Rhubarb
Believe it or not, rhubarb has a fascinating and thrilling history. The first mention of this vegetable dates all the way back to 2700 BC and ancient China where rhubarb was cultivated for its purgative medical qualities. For a very long time, rhubarb was considered an efficient medicine for conditions like constipation and inflammation. Ever since the plant found the way into Europe in the 14th century, rhubarb became the subject of various conspiracies and intrigues that shaped the Chinese-European relations in the similar fashion as tea.
However, as the time went, rhubarb became a widespread commodity, and eventually arrived into the United States in the 1730s. Today, one of the most well-known locations used for growing the plant is famous Rhubarb Triangle, located in West Yorkshire, England, but the vegetable is widely spread throughout the globe.
What Does It Take to Produce Rhubarb?
However, that doesn’t mean that the production of rhubarb doesn’t entail some limitations, no matter how slight they may be.
For example, rhubarb thrives the most in cool environments, though it can grow in subtropical climate. But that's it. Any temperature above 25 degrees Celsius will considerably slow the growth.
As for the soil, rhubarb can be grown in a wide variety of soil types, as long as they are well-drained. Another recommendation is that you grow the plant in the soil that features moderate to slight acidity (between pH 5.6 and pH 6.5).
Rhubarb is propagated by planting the divisions of "crowns" formed during previous seasons. The planting usually occurs in early spring, but it can also be accomplished in the fall after dormancy has set in. The growth requires diligent irrigation and approximately 30 tons of animal manure per hectare.
Harvest occurs every six to eight weeks.
When rhubarb finally grows, you get a plant with very interesting nutritional properties. And indeed, rhubarb is packed with vitamins, minerals and other organic compounds that are keeping our bodies healthy. Some of these beneficial compounds are vitamin B, C, and K, protein dietary fiber, magnesium, manganese, potassium, calcium, beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, and lutein. Also, it is worth mentioning that rhubarb is one of the vegetables with the lowest number of calories in existence, which makes it an excellent addition to every healthy diet.
Because of this unusual combination of compounds, rhubarb is very low in cholesterol and fat, so it poses no threat to your cardiovascular system. Also, the high vitamin K value can help you increase your bone density and delay or prevent Alzheimer's disease. As we already mentioned, rhubarb has a positive influence on digestion as well.
Keep in mind one thing, though – all the things we mentioned can be applied only to stalks. The rhubarb’s leaves are high in oxalic acid, which, virtually, makes them unusable.
The Taste of Rhubarb
Since it's 95% water, one would assume that rhubarb doesn't feature any distinct taste. However, that's not entirely the case.
Namely, rhubarb has a very clean and strong sour taste with a healthy dose of tartness. Granted, this description may be very broad, but that's a huge part of rhubarb's overall appeal – its flavor is so distinct that it almost befalls into category of its own. The closest description you'll find is a cross between fresh, green apple and celery, but with a very pronounced tangy twist. As you would expect, this strange combination leaves that pleasant sour flavor lingering in your mouth even after you eat the meal.
What you haven’t expected is that such a distinct flavor would play so well with a lot of different tastes. The most common way you’ll find rhubarb served on the plate is sweetened and in combination with some fruit that is supposed to counteract its tartness (rhubarb and strawberries make a killer couple). But, since it has a very pronounced sour note, rhubarb also gets along with the mild sweetness of chervil and its minty counterparts.
The Types of Rhubarb
Of course, not all rhubarbs are made the same. Even though they all befall into the same tarty category, different types of rhubarb offer some level of variety. Let’s quickly go through some of the most popular options you can find on the market.
- Colorado Red – A very interesting celery-like variety that is red both inside and out. Due to its visual appeal, Colorado Red is often used for jellies and jams.
- Cherry Red – Very tall and thick, this plant offers a sweet, tender taste that is best suited for the people who want to play down the sour flavor a bit.
- Holstein Bloodred – A very vigorous plant, characterized by its juicy, deep red stalks.
- McDonald’s Canadian Red – A dark red variety that is fan favorite for rhubarb pies and freezing.
- German Wine – You will quickly recognize this plant by its green stems covered with pink speckles. German Wine is one the sweetest rhubarbs you can find on the market.
- Turkish – For the most part, Turkish rhubarb is green both inside and out. That makes it an ideal fit for pairing with Colorado Red.
How to Use Rhubarb in Cooking
Although we already mentioned that rhubarb is often used in addition to some sweet-flavored fruit, that's hardly the only way you can use this unusual plant.
One of the most common ways to prepare rhubarb is as a sauce. The beauty of this dish is that it can be served both as a side to meat and poured over your favorite ice cream.
If you mix rhubarb, a little bit of sugar, lemon zest and thyme or some if its substitutes, and cook them all together for about 20 minutes, you will get a delightful rhubarb compote.
Feeling tired of your same old strawberry shortcake? Why wouldn’t you simply replace it with roasted rhubarb shortcake?
But that’s where the story only begins.
How about rhubarb cheesecake bars? Or rhubarbaritas? Yeah, that’s a thing. And so is strawberry-rhubarb pie. And rhubarb and Muscat jelly. And so on, and so on. It should be clear that this intriguing vegetable offers enormous possibilities. How much you will be able to squeeze out of them depends only on your creativity and will to experiment.