R you ready for some rhubarb? R is this week’s letter for healthy food as we walk through the ABC’s of choices to eat! What better R food to fit into spring than rhubarb?
Before we get started, did anyone buy a quince for Q week last week? I found some in the local grocery store this morning. I have never had a quince. Looking forward to giving it a try. The hope in sharing this series is to motivate us to try new things, step out of the fruit and veggie same old, same old rut we tend to get into.
We are trying these out, too, and really enjoying new things. For example, we never bought fennel bulbs. Since the F is for Fennel article, we buy fennel, slice it thin and put them in our stir fry. The whole family is loving the flavor they add. I hope you are getting inspired to try new foods, too.
The heirloom plant
On to rhubarb! If you live in the Midwest, most likely, this garden wonder is not new for you. Most of us even have a rhubarb plant that has been passed down from the generations before us. Ours was divided off of the plant of my husband’s father and mother. I looked up the word heirloom the other day. It means old-time varieties that have been handed down through multiple generations of families. Yep, it fits that definition!
I have good memories going to their home and picking rhubarb stalks in their backyard. We would talk about politics and the world’s problems (rhubarb rhetoric!) while cutting off the leaves from the stalks. I’d take the stalks home and later give them some of my homemade rhubarb crisp (yes, the recipe is at the end of this post!) as a thanks. Both of them are gone to heaven now, but their plant lives on in our yard and memories in our hearts.
But many don’t know what to do with it other than rhubarb crisp. Maybe it is time to try rhubarb in a new way! Before we get into the different ways to try it, let’s take a look at some information to learn more about it.
What is rhubarb?
Rhubarb definitely has it’s rhoots in history. Documented evidence from China of the use of this plant dates back over 2000 years BC! It’s use spans both medicinal use and culinary uses that we are more famliar with such as desserts and sauces.
Technically, it’s a vegetable. Some think it’s a fruit because it’s often used for making sweet desserts. It grows in cooler climates and is the first thing that pops up in my garden in the spring. The long stalks are similar to celery, but have very large leaves at the top of the stalk. There are many different varieties, some more sweet and some more tart than others.
Some of my friends have said they’ve eaten it straight out of the garden, like a celery stalk and just munch away. Wow, that would pack a mouth watering punch as it has a very tart taste! Most people I have talked with prefer to dip it in sugar first.
It has been said that you can’t eat it after it bolts (forms a flowering stem), but that is not true. The edible stalks (just not the flowering stem) can be eaten during it’s entire growing season.
Can rhubarb ever be poisonous?
Another rhubarb rhumor is that the leaves of the plant are poisonous. This information stems from an interesting compound that is found in the plant: oxalic acid (also called oxalate).
Oxalic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in higher quantity in the leaves of the rhubarb plant. There is some oxalic acid in the edible stem portion, but in significantly lower levels than the leaves. If you eat too much oxalic acid it can result in nausea, stomach upset, vomiting, and even possible death. But you would need to a lot of oxalic acid for this to happen.
Because of the higher levels found in the leaves, you should not eat the leaves of the plant. But just to note, an average person would need to eat about 10 pounds of leaves to consume enough oxalic acid that could cause death.
The amount of oxalic acid that is in the edible stalk is very low and is not a concern.
We just cut off the leaves and throw them in the compost pile. The oxalic acid in the leaves can’t be absorbed from the composted soil by the other plants.
Is rhubarb good for you?
Used as a medicinal plant for centuries, current scientific literature backs up these uses with evidence. Its bioactive compounds have been found to have anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antioxidant effects as well as provide a protective effect in kidneys (1). Rhubarb is also well known over the centuries in the treatment of stomach issues. Recent research in animals has shown that rhubarb does help repair stomach lining damage (2).
But there are different varieties of rhubarb. Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) is different than the rhubarb found in most gardens in the US (Rheum rhabarbarum). While the two varieties are very close in nature, they do have differing levels of the same bioactive compounds. The benefits of the compounds found in both of the varieties shows positive effects. More research is needed with the US variety.
How do you eat it?
If you haven’t had it before, be prepared for pucker power. Most people cook rhubarb with lots of sugar in various desserts such as crisps, pies, and sauces. The combination is a match made for each other that gives a yummy sweet/sour taste. But, if you are trying to eat less sugar, here are some great ideas for you:
- Add it to smoothies: We love strawberry/rhubarb smoothies. Blend together in a high speed blender 1/2 c vanilla unsweetened almond milk, 1 scoop whey protein isolate (we use unflavored, or vanilla works well, too), 1/2 C frozen (or fresh) strawberries, and 2 small stalks rhubarb. Blend until smooth. Or substitute orange juice for the almond milk for a fun tropical flavor. (note: you can chop up fresh rhubarb, put it in small air tight containers/baggies, and freeze. This is great for a quick smoothie addition!)
- Add it to stir fry: If you slice rhubarb very thin, you don’t get as much tart flavor in one bite. Try it in your next stir fry to add a flavorful tang to a chicken or pork stir fry.
- Juice it: Carrot rhubarb juice is the best! Adding several stalks adds a tang to the sweet carrot juice. We like the ratio of about 5 carrots to 2 stalks of rhubarb. Or, add it to juicing of some kale, cucumber and pineapple. Yummmm.
Rhubarb Crisp Recipe!
This one was handed down from a previous neighbor of mine. It has been the best rhubarb crisp ever. I did modify it a bit to cut down on the sugar and we also use all organic ingredients.
6-7 cups raw rhubarb, cut up
1 C sugar
3/4 C butter
2 C flour (can substitute oat flour for gluten free)
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 c nuts chopped (almonds or pecans work well)
Put rhubarb into 9×13 pan and cover with 1/2 C sugar (not all of the 1 C). Place in 350 degree F oven. While baking, combine remaining 1/2 C sugar, flour, baking soda. Cut butter into flour mixture with a fork or pastry cutter until crumbly. Stir in nuts into mixture. Place flour mixture on baking rhubarb and continue baking until bubbly and top is slightly browned (about 30-45 min). Serve warm. Top with ice cream if desired. We have also added other fruits in with the rhubarb such as sliced strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries. ENJOY!
Now I am rheally in the mood for some rhubarb! See you next week when we will cover the letter S.
 Front Pharmacol. 2016 Aug 17;7:247. A Comprehensive and System Review for the Pharmacological Mechanism of Action of Rhein, an Active Anthraquinone Ingredient. Sun H, Luo G, Chen D, Xiang Z.
 Chin Med J (Engl). 2017 May 20;130(10):1218-1225. Rhubarb Monomers Protect Intestinal Mucosal Barrier in Sepsis via Junction Proteins. Wang L, Cui YL, Zhang Z, Lin ZF, Chen DC.