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Rhubarb, the First Sign of Spring

by Tarla Fallgatter

Copyright © 1999 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.

It is always a thrill to see the fresh stalks of rhubarb piled up in the produce section of the market, indicating that spring has sprung! My mind races to find those much-loved recipes with rhubarb as the star. It seems like such a short season that I want to thoroughly take advantage of the tart, juicy flavor of my favorite fruit -- or is it a vegetable?

Fruit or Vegetable?

The edible stalks of the Rheum plant, botanically a vegetable rather than a fruit, have enjoyed popularity largely because they make some of the earliest desserts of the season, sweetened with plenty of sugar and cooked into pies, puddings, preserves, compotes and fools. Very sensibly, however, in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court at Buffalo, New York, ruled that rhubarb was a fruit, since that is how it is normally eaten.

Rhubarb got its name when the ancients observed that it was grown along the Rha river, now known as the Volga, by the resident barbarians. These Siberian Tartars had a reputation for incivility to their neighbors, which may explain how rhubarb came to be the name for a modern-day fracas on a baseball diamond. Despite its funny name and comical associations, rhubarb is a delightful vegetable usually used as a fruit, with an assertive tartness that perks up sweets.

Rhubarb first came to the West as a medicinal plant, its rhizome root used as a purgative. The purgative principle in rhubarb is a group of substances allied to chrysophanic acid and is present mainly in the root. The stalks contain oxalic acid, which is harmful if eaten to excess, but the amounts are not greater than those present in familiar vegetables such as spinach and chard. The central ribs of the leaves contain more, and should not be eaten. It has been grown for thousands of years for medicinal purposes in India, China, Mongolia and Siberia. Wild rhubarbs, Rheumspecies in the buckwheat family, flourish in regions such as the south of Siberia and the Himalayas. The rhizomes and crowns from which the leaf-bearing stalks grow survive readily in ground which is frozen during the winter.

It seems that the Chinese did not know rhubarb until relatively late in their history, since they called it by opposite and descriptive names such as "ta hwan" (the great yellow one), whereas all the plants they knew from ancient times have a root word of a single syllable. However, by about 200 B.C., they certainly knew the plant called Chinese rhubarb, R officinale, and valued it medicinally. It later became an important article of trade from China to western Asia, and to the Arab countries. In the late sixteenth century it was introduced into England from Siberia and was then grown as an ornamental plant. Although the types introduced were edible, it was a long time before people thought of eating the stem. The first recipe did not appear until 1783, when John Farley ( The London Art of Cookery) advocated slicing the stalks and cooking them like gooseberries. Recipes for sweet pies and tarts followed in the early 19th century; the first author to offer a whole range of rhubarb recipes was Mrs. Beeton (1861), who had two rhubarb jams, rhubarb pudding and rhubarb tart -- plus rhubarb wine. The fact that rhubarb can be forced and will provide a "fruit" out of season helped to increase its popularity during Victorian times.

Only after 1800 did growers discover that blanching the astringent stalks -- shielding them from light -- made them tender, juicy and pink. Of the many varieties developed through the centuries, over 100 are still grown today. One of the best-flavored varieties is Champagne or Dresden rhubarb, a forced variety. The Victorians experimented widely in forcing rhubarb and developing new varieties until rhubarb dishes became almost a fad. At Harrogate in Yorkshire, England, there is a botanical garden, a rhubarb museum, if you will, that has collected and preserved over 100 varieties for researchers and breeders of the present and future.

Rhubarb was hardly known in the United States until about 1820. Cultivation began in New England but has since shifted to the states of Washington, Oregon, Michigan, California and New York. Utica in Michigan has styled itself as the "rhubarb capital of the world," a bold declaration which raises eyebrows among the clan of rhubarb growers near Sheffield in England, who boast that if you lurk at night in their black plastic tunnels which hug the low Yorkshire hills, you can literally hear the rhubarb growing as the leaves unfurl.

Easy to grow , the perennial soon acquired the nickname "pie plant" for its usefulness to settlers. But its apparent homeliness, like so much fashion, has recently reversed itself. Once ignored in French restaurants, rhubarb assumed a previously unimagined style with nouvelle cuisine when it accompanied meat and fish dishes. Current interest in rhubarb comes with the vogue for old-fashioned desserts, pairing nostalgia for the farms and homesteads of our memory (or fantasy) with our recently acquired taste for exotic sour fruits.

Rhubarb is popular not only in America, but in Britain, Scandinavia, Switzerland, northern Germany and Iran. In these cuisines, rhubarb often goes with meats such as pork and lamb, where its puckery tartness balances the meats' richness, much like apples with pork and gooseberries with mackerel. That same sourness helps make rhubarb into a successful sherbet, its pale shade of pink-mauve as refreshing as its taste on a hot summer day. In traditional pies, pastries, chutneys and jams , fresh ginger and orange are natural complements to rhubarb, as are strawberries and raspberries, which come into season at the same time.

The Season

There are generally two crops of rhubarb during the season. The first one, which is forced, produces thin, pink, tender stalks. The second crop, also called "field" or "outdoor" rhubarb, produces coarse, thicker stalks with dark leaves and a more acidic flavor. For forcing, the root stocks are dug out and left on top of the earth, exposed to the weather overnight. They are then transferred to a dark shed or barrel. The young plants grow quickly; rhubarb can grow at a rate of two inches a day.

Hothouse rhubarb arrives in markets early in the new year, with thin, tender, bright-pink stems, sweeter than the garden variety, and yellowish leaves which have usually been removed. Unforced rhubarb comes into season in April or so and continues through the summer, its green leaves unfurling to enormous size. The stalks should be eaten only as long as they remain red. As they grow greener and thicker, they become stringier, coarser and more sour. Avoid any stalks that are limp or split. It is an ideal fruit for freezing; blanch first.


The forcing of rhubarb is done either by covering the plant with a pot to encourage early growth in the spring or by the modern method of hothouse cultivating. The practice has been observed in Afghanistan as well as in Western countries, where it was accidentally discovered at the Chelsea Physic Garden early in the 19th century. In Britain the best and sweetest variety, Hawkes Champagne, comes very early and has thin, tender stalks. By comparison, the unforced summer rhubarb is course and sour.


Choose crisp, plump, medium-sized stalks that are brightly hued. The leaves should be fresh-looking and blemish-free. Avoid wilted stalks, as well as stalks that are skinny or overgrown.


Trim the stalks at the ends, removing any brown spots. Always discard the leaves. Wash and dry the stalks, wrap in a damp dishtowel or paper towel and refrigerate. Young, pink rhubarb does not need to be peeled. Try to use soon after purchase or picking.

To cook rhubarb, cut the stalks across into 1/2- to 1-inch chunks and stew (or bake) them with plenty of sugar. Rhubarb has very little natural sugar and when cooked without anything to sweeten it, it is quite sour. Recipes often recommend removing the outer stringy peel from field rhubarb, but I have never found this necessary or desirable, since the rosy color, which sugar helps retain, is in the peel. Simply choose thinner stalks and slice them into short segments.

When cooked, rhubarb releases a surprising amount of liquid. When you are stewing rhubarb, there is no need to add any water to the pan. Heated for just a few minutes, the stalks will release enough of their own juices to sufficiently soften the fruit. Field-grown rhubarb tends to have a higher water content than hothouse varieties and sometimes needs to be drained before it is used. Rhubarb cooks very quickly, fiber and sugar dissolving into a puddle of syrup; cook it no longer than necessary.


Rhubarb can be stewed, steamed, baked or poached. It is ideal for puddings, fruit fools and crisps; it is also delicious made into a sauce or preserve and served with pork or deep-fried cheese. The older type of rhubarb is best for jams and chutneys, whereas forced rhubarb is good for canning and rhubarb wine. Flavor rhubarb with grated orange rind, rose water, or sweet spices such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger or cinnamon when cooking.

The basic ingredient of many aperitifs, rhubarb is also used as a digestion aid, among other things . The juice can be used for beverages, including wine. In the Middle East unsweetened rhubarb is sometimes used to add tartness to meat or vegetable dishes such as stuffed grape leaves and ground lamb preparations. Some people in remote areas are believed to eat rhubarb raw.

It is a popular and fairly inexpensive fruit in European households, but is not often served in restaurants. In Zurich, where it seems to be more appreciated than anywhere else, every small family vegetable garden displays at least one large rhubarb plant.

Rhubarb Strawberry Fool

2C fresh strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced (or raspberries, if preferred)

2 Tbsp. sugar

2 oranges

3/4 lb. red, thin stalks rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3/4C sugar

1/2C cream, lightly whipped with 2 Tbsp. sugar

6 mint sprigs

Toss the sliced strawberries with the 2 Tbsp. sugar and set aside. Remove the zest from the oranges and cut into very fine julienne strips. Place the strips in a small pan, cover with water and bring the mixture to a boil. Drain and set aside. Squeeze the juice from both oranges and place in a sauce pan along with the rhubarb and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer, cover and continue to simmer until the rhubarb is tender and falling apart -- about 10 minutes. Uncover and let the rhubarb cool, then stir to break up the chunks. Refrigerate until well chilled.

To serve: Swirl the cream into the purée and divide among six serving glasses or bowls. Pile the strawberries or raspberries in the center, top with the reserved orange julienne and garnish with mint sprigs.

Makes: 6 servings


Fresh rhubarb is available from February to August with the peak season in May and June. Rhubarb is also available canned and frozen.


Fresh rhubarb is perishable. Refrigerate and use as soon as possible.

  • fresh rhubarb stored uncooked on a refrigerator shelf will last 1 to 3 days
  • fresh/cooked or canned/opened rhubarb stored on a refrigerator shelf will last 4 to 5 days
  • fresh rhubarb prepared for freezing, or frozen rhubarb, stored in a refrigerator frozen-food compartment will last 2 to 3 months
  • fresh rhubarb prepared for freezing, or frozen rhubarb, stored in a freezer will last 1 year
  • canned rhubarb stored on a kitchen shelf will last 1 year

Nutritive Food Values

  • fair source of vitamin A
  • fresh, 3 1/2 ounces, cooked, with added sugar = 141 calories
  • l pound = 2 cups cooked, or 3 cups chopped, raw fruit


If you're taking a trip into the wine country of northern California and would like to know how the wine is made from grape to bottle you will enjoy the tour through the Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga. The tour begins with a ride up the mountain in an aerial tramway and ends in the tasting room. For more information call (800) 727-6136, visit their Web site or just stop by their vineyards at 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, California 94515 while you're up that way.

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.


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