Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pucker Power

Yep, I'm talking about rhubarb - the sour fruit (or vegetable) we Northerners find necessary to usher in Spring. 

It was a vegetable until 1947 when a New York court ruled it was a fruit for regulation and duty purposes and to reduce the taxes paid.  Yes, folks, politicians have been sticking their fingers in the pie (in this case a rhubarb pie) forever.

Rhubarb is a perennial.  Although it produces in more temperate climates year round, it dies back in the north.  There are rhubarb production farms as-well-as hothouse productions.  Both are a bit different than we grow in our yards, mostly due to variety and method.  Today I'll be talking about typical garden grown rhubarb.

Rhubarb leaves are toxic and discarded once the stems are picked.  The rhubarb stems are similar to celery in texture and looks.  The color (from green to red) do not affect the taste much or how it cooks.  The green is more productive and is usually the variety we see in old gardens.  The reds are preferred by consumers in groceries and food stands and are sometimes a little more sweet.

Although thousands of years old in China, the plant arrived in the U.S. with European settlers in 1820s.  It was originally used for medicinal purposes and reportedly has been used as a laxative for over 5,000 years.  There's a joke in there someplace.  The rhubarb root produces a dark brown die used where walnut die was unavailable.

Rhubarb is easy to grow in my "neck of the woods".  Basically, you dig a hole, plant the rhizome in full sun, water until established and don't harvest until the 2nd year.  Planting the rhizomes should be done in the early spring.  It is important to have good drainage because the rhizomes will rot if they stand in water.  They enjoy a good manure mixed into the soil or in later years, as a top dressing.  It's recommended the plants be divided every five years to keep production at it's maximum.  Their care reminds me of the same care we give our iris (another rhizome).  It has few pests or diseases.  It's why we still see plants in old yards.  It's also an inexpensive plant to purchase and even cheaper if someone offers you a start from their garden.

Harvest only about 1/3 of the stalks at a time.  Cut off the any flower stalks that develop during harvesting.  It's best not to harvest in the fall, allowing the plant to put it's strength into the crown.  Don't cut down the foliage after spring harvests as this is how the plant gets nutrients for next year. 

What to do with rhubarb:  stew, dry like jerky, jelly & jams, sauce, pie, bread, desserts, soup and wine.  The purest will eat it raw, maybe dipped in sugar or salt.  That's the pucker power issue.   Seldom do you find a recipe that doesn't add a sweetener and most add other fruits - strawberry being the most popular.

Nutrition Facts from the University of Illinois Extension:  (1 cup diced, uncooked)
Calories 26
Dietary Fiber 2 grams
Protein 1 gram
Carbohydrates 6 grams
Vitamin C 10 mg
Vitamin A 122 IU
Folic Acid 8.7 mcg
Calcium 105 mg
Potassium 351 mg

 Pennsylvania Dutch Rhubarb Pudding

1 lb. - Rhubarb (cut off leaves and ends of stems & cut into 1 inch pieces - about 4 cups - peel stalks if they are tough.)  Put in saucepan and stir in:
1 C - Sugar
1 tsp. - Grated lemon peel
2 tsp. - Fresh lemon juice

Cook over low heat until sugar dissolves and a syrup is formed.  Cover tightly and cook over low heat about 15 minutes or until rhubarb is tender.

Butter a 1 1/2 quart baking dish.  Line sides and bottom with slices of plain dry pound cake.  Fill the cavity with stewed rhubarb.  Bake uncovered at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. 

Beat 2 egg whites until frothy.  Add 1/4 Cup of sugar and continue beating until rounded peaks are formed.  Remove pudding from oven and cover with meringue.  Return to oven for about 8 minutes or until meringue is lightly golden brown. 
 Serves 8.  

NOTE:  My friend, Pat R.  adds one egg (slightly beaten) to the cheese mixture in the "Asparagus & Us" recipe (#313) to help hold it together.       

For the locals:  Aledo, Illinois, Rhubarb Festival, June 3 and 4, 2011

The 20 years old festival, in the Rhubarb Capital of Illinois, will feature more than 2,000 homemade Rhubarb Pies for sale, Rhubarb Sampling, 12,000 free Rhubarb seeds given away, crafts, music, entertainment and more all set in downtown.

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