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Prairie Fare: Rhubarb Has Long History of Use

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service food and nutrition specialist
Most of us have enjoyed rhubarb in crisps, jams, sauce or pies.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

My son always has enjoyed super-sour candy that eventually has a sweeter interior. Occasionally, I will dare to try a piece. I don’t recall having sour candy available when I was young, but I guess I improvised.

When I was a kid, I would get a small bowl of sugar, go out to our garden and break off a stalk of rhubarb. I hope I rinsed the rhubarb in our kitchen or with the garden hose, but I probably didn’t. I wasn’t a food safety specialist back then.

I dipped the red stalks in sugar and enjoyed the sweetness of the sugar and sour crunch of rhubarb. Fortunately, I knew enough not to eat the rhubarb leaves.

Rhubarb leaves are a concentrated source of oxalates. These compounds are poisonous in large amounts.

In fact, during World War I, some sources say that people became very ill or died because of eating rhubarb leaves as a source of greens in their diet. At the time, there were shortages of vegetables.

The use of rhubarb as a medicine dates back to ancient China around 2700 B.C. An early Chinese rhubarb variety was used as a potent herbal medication, especially for digestive issues and for a wide range of ailments.

Other rhubarb varieties began to be used as food in Europe by the late 1700s. By around 1800, a Maine gardener obtained some seed or roots and introduced it in America.

Historically, some people have used rhubarb for many nonfood uses. Rhubarb has been used to help renew the luster of pots or pans. It also was used as a form of hair bleach. Some have used boiled rhubarb leaves as an insecticide spray.

Most of us have enjoyed rhubarb in crisps, jams, sauce or pies. In fact, rhubarb also is known as “pie plant.” Rhubarb pairs well with strawberries, so many recipes combine the sweetness of strawberries with the tartness of rhubarb.

Rhubarb has just 26 calories per cup, but the low-calorie content is offset by the amount of sweetener needed to overcome its tartness. Rhubarb also provides vitamin C and fiber.

Rhubarb grows well in the cool climates of the northern U.S. It even tolerates minus 20 F temperatures during Midwestern winters. However, it doesn’t thrive in most hot, dry regions of the southern U.S.

If you decide to grow rhubarb, you will need to be patient. You shouldn’t pick any rhubarb the first year, but you can harvest your rhubarb crop lightly the second year. By the third year, you can enjoy plenty of rhubarb-based recipes.

Contrary to popular belief, the entire rhubarb plant does not become toxic later in the summer. It may become stringy and tough, though, so the best time to pick rhubarb is during June.

To freeze rhubarb, choose tender stalks, then wash and cut. You can freeze rhubarb with or without blanching, which is a brief boiling in water. If you blanch for 1 minute in boiling water, you will have better flavor and color retention. Place the raw or heat-treated rhubarb in containers, leaving one-half inch of head space.

You can make an easy rhubarb-strawberry sauce by combining 1 pound of rinsed and cut fresh rhubarb, 3/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Microwave the mixture for seven to 10 minutes, until rhubarb is tender. Then add 1 pint of rinsed and coarsely chopped strawberries. Continue microwaving for two minutes and let stand two minutes. Serve on ice cream or over food cake.

If you want to try something a little different, try this rhubarb compote, which is courtesy of Be sure to use fresh ginger and balsamic vinegar as noted. If you substitute another type of vinegar or use powdered spice, the flavor will change.

Balsamic Rhubarb Compote

3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

2/3 c. sugar

3/4 tsp. grated, peeled fresh ginger root

2 fresh rhubarb stalks (or 2 c. frozen rhubarb, thawed, reserving liquid)

Discard the rhubarb leaves and trim the ends. Cut the stalks into 1/4-inch slices. In a saucepan, simmer vinegar with sugar and ginger root, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. If using frozen, thawed rhubarb, stir in reserved liquid. Simmer fresh rhubarb until crisp-tender, about one minute, and transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl. If using frozen rhubarb, as soon as mixture returns to a simmer, transfer rhubarb with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Simmer the liquid until thickened slightly, about five minutes, and remove pan from heat. Stir in rhubarb. Serve warm or at room temperature. A serving idea: Use as a side dish with grilled chicken or fish.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 80 calories, 19 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 0 g of fat and 1 gram of fiber.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication – June 16, 2011

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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