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Rhubarb

Rheum rhabarbarum


Description

Nobody really knows how to classify rhubarb. Technically, it’s actually a herb. But in Britain it’s considered a vegetable, while in the United States they think of it as a fruit.

Rhubarb grows in stalks that look much like red-tinted celery. When you buy it, it will always come with the large green leaves removed; these are highly poisonous and, if you grow it, don’t even put them in the compost, as they can cause the soil to turn toxic.

Rhubarb has a very tart flavour, and while it can be eaten raw when the leaves are removed, it’s usually cooked and sweetened. It’s high in fibre, containing about five grams for every cup of cooked rhubarb, as well as vitamins A and K, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and calcium.

Choose rhubarb stalks that are fairly thin and red, which will hold the flavour and sweetness. Avoid stalks that are limp and floppy, just like you would celery. Store rhubarb in the vegetable crisper of your fridge for up to a week.

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History

Rhubarb was used for centuries as a medicinal plant, first appearing in a book compiled in China in 2700BC.

In mediaeval Europe, rhubarb was extremely expensive, owing to the cost of transporting it from Asia. At one point, it was more expensive than cinnamon and saffron. The explorer Marco Polo was very interested in its cultivation in China, and wrote a lot about it. Records show that rhubarb was planted in Italy in 1608 and 20 or 30 years later was in other parts of Europe.

Though it’s now commonly thought of as being a quintessential English ingredient, rhubarb stems weren’t commonly used until the 17th century, when sugar became affordable to the masses. It was particularly popular in the early 20th century, between the wars.

Uses

Rhubarb is usually used in desserts to add extra flavour and tartness. It’s particularly good in apple or pear crumble, or just as a crumble on its own.

You don’t need to peel rhubarb, just give the stalks a good wash. If it’s boiled it will turn to mush, so if you need to pre-cook it, do so in the oven for about 15 minutes. It makes a good sauce for pork or duck, however, if you get tired of apple sauce –stew it with a little water and sugar.

Try making rhubarb muffins – just use a recipe for apple muffins but substitute rhubarb for the apple.

Facts

In theatre, the word ‘rhubarb’ is often used by actors talking in the background to simulate conversation, as it has no harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels.



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