By MARY ANN LIENHART CROSS
County Extension Director, Purdue Extension Elkhart County
GOSHEN — Spring is a great time of the year for special foods, one of which I wrote about last week — dandelion greens. Another specialty food that many of us enjoy a variety of ways is rhubarb. Although botanically a vegetable, rhubarb is considered a fruit by most of us who cook with it and most of all by everyone who eats it.
The rhubarb stalk, or stick as a friend of mine calls them, is long like celery stalks and is the part of the plant that is edible. A question for discussion with gardeners is about the leaves and the root being toxic. The correct answer is that yes they are both toxic as they contain oxalic acid.
The rhubarb stalks are beginning to make their way through the cold ground and soon we will have nice tender stalks to harvest. When harvesting or buying rhubarb look for crisp, unblemished stalks; avoid any that are limp or wilted. Harvest rhubarb when the stalks are 10 to 15 inches long by grasping the stalk near its base and pulling it slightly to one side. The stalk should separate easily from the plant. Trim the leaf blade off and rinse the stalk then trim the end off. If you need to store the stalks they will keep in a plastic bag up to four weeks in the refrigerator. You can also cut the stalk into pieces and lightly sugar and freeze.
If you want to grow your own, Purdue Extension has an excellent publication on rhubarb, HO-97W, and it is available on the web, here or call our office at (574) 533-0554 to have a copy mailed to you.
Many of you refer to rhubarb as pie plant and that is a good clue to its most frequent use. Rhubarb is excellent in pies, especially when tossed with flour, corn starch and or instant tapioca to thicken the abundant juices. Rhubarb is also frequently combined with strawberries or pineapple not only in pies but also crisp.
This year the Presidents Baked Item at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair is rhubarb pie. Elkhart County Fair President Dr. Robert Zell wants rhubarb pie but not custard or cream rhubarb pie. Bring your entry to the Home and Family Arts building between 11-11:45 a.m. Thursday, July 21, and watch the judging at noon. First place prize is $10 sponsored by the Elkhart County 4-H Fair Board. Complete rules and regulations are available in our open class booklet on our office website.
A favorite recipe to make with rhubarb is sauce or stewed rhubarb. I know it is more attractive when it is made with the red rhubarb. I learned how to do it watching my mother. I use about 4 cups of rhubarb in a sauce pan and add a little water and have it simmer until the rhubarb is tender and sauce-like. You don’t want to add more water than needed as the rhubarb is mostly water. I haven’t done this on the stove in years as I prepare it in an 8 cup glass measuring cup in the microwave. I know that not everyone has the convenience of a microwave oven it but sure saves a lot of time. Back to the stove — once you have the rhubarb in the sauce form you have a couple of options, the simplest is to just add sugar to taste. Another option is to also add some instant tapioca which makes it thicker. A third option is what we do; we add a box of a raspberry, strawberry, or cherry gelatin. You can use the one with sugar or sugar free. Once the gelatin is completely dissolved I add 3 tablespoons or so of instant tapioca and heat it thoroughly so all is dissolved and then I taste it and add more sugar as needed. I think it should have a little bit of a tart taste. Those of us who like it eat it like applesauce, it is also good with cottage cheese and as a snack. The sauce needs to be refrigerated after it is cooled. I like storing it in a large mouth canning jar, not sure why but that is what we did when at home.
So here is to spring, and all foods and beverages made with rhubarb; be it crisp, bread, pie, or sauce, enjoy.