Rhubarb is in full season right now and I have been enjoying several sweet (some not so sweet) experiments with this wonderful ingredient in my kitchen.
I was not always a rhubarb fan though. I remember getting served some kind of funny looking, greenish, slop that tasted so chemical I was under the impression rhubarb only came in cans!
It was much later that I learned to appreciate the spectacular versatility of rhubarb. I am inquisitive by nature and I am always keen to experiment with fruit and vegetables that I once upon a time did not like. I bring it home to my kitchen and work on recipes – often for several weeks in a row. My two men are great and patient, hardly ever complaining that they’ve been eating one type of ingredient for weeks. Probably because the dishes are prepared so differently they hardly realize! LOL!
This season I have been indulging in 2 particular types of ingredients. Rhubarb is one of them. The farmers at my Farmer’s Market have provided me with several varieties of rhubarb and are educating me about the vegetable.
Did you know that Rhubarb is in actual fact a vegetable? I will be honest – I did not and thanks to the lovely lady at my favorite organic stall at the Farmer’s Market, I was informed of its origins.
Rhubarb is a vegetable with an incomparable taste, which makes it a favorite in many pies and desserts. It originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago and was initially cultivated for its medicinal qualities. It was not until the 18th century that rhubarb was actually grown for culinary purposes in Britain and America.
Often rhubarb is commonly mistaken to be a fruit but rhubarb is actually a close relative of garden sorrel, and is therefore a member of the vegetable family.
Rhubarb's crisp sour stalks are rich in vitamin C, dietary fibre and calcium. The leaves of rhubarb should never be eaten as they contain toxic levels of oxalic acid.
Rhubarb is in season from April through to September. It can be grown forced which accounts for its availability early in the year when other crops are scarce. Forced rhubarb, which is grown in the dark, has yellowish leaves and usually appears in January. The field-grown variety replaces it around April and is less tender but often more flavorful.
Nowadays Rhubarb is grown in many areas. Greenhouse production allows it to be available throughout much of the year. Rhubarb is ready to be consumed as soon as it is harvested, and freshly cut stalks will be firm and glossy.
The color of the Rhubarb stalks varies from the commonly associated deep red, through speckled pink, to simply green. The color, which results from the presence of anthocyanins, varies according to both rhubarb variety and production technique. The color is not related to its suitability for cooking. The green-stalked rhubarb is more robust and has a higher yield, and the red-colored stalks are more popular with consumers.
The stalks, which are petioles, may be prepared in a variety of ways. Stewing them will produce a tart sauce that can be eaten with sugar and other stewed fruit or used as filling for pies, tarts, and crumbles. This was the popular way rhubarb was enjoyed, which led to the common term for rhubarb, "pie plant". Rhubarb makes excellent jam and can be easily paired with other fruit like strawberries or apples. It can also be used to make wine and as an ingredient in baked goods.
Selecting & Storing
When buying rhubarb look for fresh crisp, firm, plump stalks with good color. Peel off any stringy covering before use. Stand the stalks in cold water for an hour or so to refresh them before cooking.
Kept in the fridge, fresh rhubarb will stay in reasonable condition for 1-2 weeks. However to enjoy its full flavor eat within three days of purchase. Raw and cooked rhubarb freeze well.
Preparing rhubarb is easy but not everyone knows what to do with it, if they have never worked with the ingredient before. So here are my tips to help you enjoy this vegetable with an identity crisis. Wash and trim both ends of the stalks. Discard the poisonous green leaves. If the rhubarb is a bit stringy, using a sharp knife, peel off the stringy covering. Rhubarb is very tart and requires considerable sweetening.
Rhubarb is incredibly versatile and has many culinary uses. Try it in cakes and desserts, pastries, jams, pickles, conserves, sauces and, of course, wine.
This is currently my favorite way to enjoy rhubarb in its simplest form. Compote is perfect because you can make large batches and use them in several ways. My rhubarb compote was used as a pastry filler, as a sauce for pancakes, in muffins and of course pure with rich vanilla sauce drizzled over the top.
Hope you enjoy your rhubarb season too!
Updated: You'll find all the different types of rhubarb varieties here.
Printable version of recipe here.
For the Rhubarb Compote
750g rhubarb, cleaned, scraped and cut into larger sized pieces
50-70g + 2 tablespoons sugar
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
For the Vanilla Sauce
3 egg yolks
15-20g vanilla sugar
20-30g cornflour (cornstarch)
3/8 liter milk
1 vanilla pod
For the Rhubarb Compote
Place the rhubarb with about 2 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan. Set aside for approx. 15 minutes until the juices are drawn out. Pour in about 100 ml water and the lemon juice into the sauce pan and bring to a boil. Covered, simmer for 4-5 minutes. In a small cup or bowl mix the cornflour with 6 tablespoons of water to a smooth mixture. Pour into the rhubarb mixture and simmer for a further 3 minutes.
Sprinkle in the 50-70g of sugar. Give it a taste if the compote is still too tart then add another few teaspoons. Set aside to cool completely.
For the Vanilla Sauce
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the cornstarch, sugar and vanilla sugar to a smooth paste. Make sure there are no lumps in the mixture. Whisk in the milk.
Split the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and pod into the egg-milk mixture.
Heat mixture in a pan over a medium heat until the sauce thickens. Do not allow to boil. Remove the vanilla pod and serve either still warm or chilled.
Fruit served in this way is a treat. Soeren always enjoys a good compote with vanilla sauce. They are also simply perfect for the school lunchboxes or a little treat for us mums in between. Tom loves this compote with vanilla ice cream and often serves himself a little portion a little later in the evenings. On the weekends we enjoy the compote with pancakes or waffles. So you see it really is worthwhile making large batches - because even those do not last too long!
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