Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rhubarb Basics

Harvest from one of our plants
Did you know that rhubarb is a vegetable and that it originally grew in China?  It was brought to
 Europe by Marco Polo, where it was grown as a medicinal plant.  Eventually it came to North America with European immigrants.  It needs freezing cold winters to help the root to produce new spring growth, and it does not like hot summer temperatures.  Therefore, it grows really well in Wisconsin!

The rhubarb that grows in All Peoples Global Garden comes from a mother root that is more than 100 years old.  Pieces of the root were handed down through five generations of a church family.  Every time the family has moved, pieces of the root have been dug up and planted in new locations.  Pieces of the root were planted at All Peoples in 2014.  All Peoples rhubarb has bright red stems with a little hint of green in them, but there are other types of rhubarb that vary from green to pink and different colors of red.

Rhubarb flower stalk headed for the compost pile
In the spring, new stems shoot up from the root.  During the first year, it is best not to pick any stems.  During the second year, it is best to pick about half of the stems.  From then on, it is OK to harvest most of the stems.  To harvest rhubarb, you grasp one stem firmly near the base and pull.  Pull one stem at a time, taking the fattest and longest ones first.  Rhubarb can be harvested over several weeks in the spring, and sometimes throughout the summer or after a second sprouting at the end of summer.   If you harvest rhubarb in the cooler part of the day, it stays crisper.   Leave some of the stems that get scarred from the soil or heavy rain so that their leaves can give energy to the roots for future growth.  If a flower stalk forms, pick it so that the plant continues to give most of its energy to producing good stems and not seeds (unless you want to harvest seeds for future planting).

There is a plant called common burdock that likes to grow near the rhubarb.  It looks a lot like rhubarb, but has hairy, hollow stems and produces tall stalks that eventually produce burrs.  The root (and other parts of the burdock plant) are used by some people to make medicine.  It is never good to eat any plant that you do not know is good as a food, because medicinal plants can harm your body and many plants contain poisons.
Remove the stem from the leaf
Remove the end of the stem
Do not eat the leaves and do not let your pets eat them
Rhubarb stems are food.  Rhubarb leaves are poisonous.  Do not eat them.  Cut the leaf from each stem right after harvesting.  Cut the little end off the stem base too.  The leaves and the ends can be tossed into your compost pile.
Stems ready for use
Wash each stem thoroughly.  Place the stems on a towel to dry.  

Rhubarb can be used in recipes right away (or within a day or two if you keep the whole stems wrapped in a damp towel and plastic wrap in the fridge).  It is easy and convenient to freeze the rhubarb.  By freezing rhubarb in measured quantities, you can save up enough for a favorite recipe.  Freeze rhubarb as soon as possible after picking to produce the best results.  

  Cut the washed rhubarb stems into 1/2 inch pieces.  If the stems are a little wet, that is OK.  Use it right away or put the cut rhubarb into freezer bags or containers.  Recycled yogurt or cottage cheese tubs work well because they hold about 4 cups of cut rhubarb (and many recipes call for 4 cups of cut rhubarb!)  Be sure to label the container or bag with "rhubarb" and the date.  Frozen rhubarb keeps for 1 year in the freezer. 

 Frozen rhubarb is a little more watery than fresh, so you may need to eliminate or reduce the amount of water in recipes for baked items if you use frozen rhubarb.

Rhubarb is a healthy vegetable which contains fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium and calcium.  It is fairly acidic or "sour" so many recipes call for the addition of sugar or honey.  You can add other fruits such as peaches, strawberries or blueberries when making a sauce, pie or cake with rhubarb, and then you will not need as much sugar.

Did you know that you can eat rhubarb raw?  It is a great addition to a salad!  Try mixing salad greens, chopped celery, chopped rhubarb, goat cheese or feta cheese and sunflower nuts or walnuts with a simple honey-mustard vinaigrette for an adventurous salad.

Do you have some favorite rhubarb recipes to share?  Email them to office@allpeoplesgathering.org or put them into the comment section.  We will put up a Rhubarb Recipe Blog post featuring your ideas!

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