Robin Lane Fox, Financial Times columnist, explained that rhubarb has been cultivated for about 4500 years. There are records of rhubarb being used medicinally in China since 2700 BC. It was actually the roots that were considered valuable as a purgative and cathartic.
It even became important as an export to Russia and England. It was so important that when the Chinese became angry with these countries in 1759 the emperor Qianlong forbid the export of rhubarb. Fortunately, long before that Marco Polo had brought rhubarb back to Venice where it was valuable in the pharmacopias of the day.
That Chinese rhubarb, R. palmatum, is rarely grown in the west today. Its medicinal properties are not needed. It is another variety of rhubarb, R. officinale, that became known as pie plant and that I always thought of as practically being invented in New England.
In fact, there is a record of a Maine gardener getting some roots from England in about 1790. By 1822 it was so popular that it was sold routinely in food markets. I always think of it as a spring tonic. Certainly a trip out to the rhubarb patch on a still cool spring morning can get the blood flowing and rhubarb’s tart flavor wakes up the taste buds.
Any number of catalogs sell rhubarb roots including the local Nourse Farms in South Deerfield. Rhubarb is a long lived and very hardy plant which should be planted in soil well fertilized with rotted manure and compost. The pH should be between 6 and 6.8 for best production.
Many people get their rhubarb plants from a friend who is thinning their patch. If the leaves seem to be getting smaller that is usually an indication that the plants are getting overcrowded.
I actually got my rhubarb plants from a neighbor who had thrown rhubarb root thinnings into their huge pile of autumn leaves. I went over one spring day to harvest some of those leaves for my compost pile and found beautiful healthy roots, already showing new growth and perfectly ready for planting.
Because the roots will increase in size and because the leaves are so large, roots should be planted three feet apart; the top of the root should be just level with the soil. Every spring I spread compost over the rhubarb patch, and I do the same in the fall when the plants have died down.
There is a controversy about whether the flower stalk should be cut down or not. One theory is that it steals energy from the plant. Another theory is that it doesn’t make any difference, and that the flower is just another attraction in addition to the handsome foliage. Take your pick.
The stalks are not really considered medicinal except in the sense of a spring tonic, but it must be remembered that the leaves contain oxalic acid and are poisonous. It is not likely that a toddler or young child would find them delicious after the first bite, or that anyone would stew them up as a mess of greens, but remember – rhubarb leaves are poisonous.
To harvest wait until the leaves are fully developed. Grab the stalk near the root and pull slightly to the side and break it off. Cutting with a knife can lead to rot. Don’t harvest more than half the stalks, and stop the harvest by midsummer.
Then take those red and green stalks into the kitchen for some good eating. First there is just plain rhubarb sauce. A very general recipe is all you really need. Take a potful of 1 inch pieces of rhubarb with lots of sugar and a cup or so of water. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes. If you wish you can also add the juice and grated rind of one orange. Refrigerate over night.
Another popular sauce is rhubarb strawberry sauce. I usually just toss a package of frozen strawberries into the hot rhubarb sauce and cook them together for a minute or two.
Hawley-ite Tinky Weisblat, author of the Pudding Hollow cookbook, suggests rhubarb fritters. She says that if you dip inch long pieces of rhubarb into a fritter batter and deep fry them, the rhubarb softens in about the time it takes for the batter to brown. Then it is just like biting into a hot jelly donut.
Fans of Prairie Home Companion are familiar with their “Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie”, so I will take this occasion to give my favorite pie recipe, adapted from Easy as Pie by Susan G. Purdy.
Quick and Creamy Rhubarb Pie.
Make a thick custard batter. Beat together ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar; ¼ cup packed dark brown sugar;1/3 cup flour; ¼ teaspoon nutmeg; a pinch of salt; ½ cup heavy cream; 1 egg and ¼ teaspoon almond extract. This can be made several hours ahead and refrigerated until needed.
Take 4 cups of rhubarb cut into one inch pieces and toss with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Set aside while making your favorite pastry crust for a 10 inch pie. Shape a high fluted edge to hold in the custard. Moisture proof the shell by brushing on beaten egg yolk.
Put the rhubarb pieces in the pie shell, and pour the custard batter over all. Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 more minutes or until top is browned and crackled. Serve warm. Happy Eating.