A Closer Look at Rhubarb
Rhubarb is my culinary friend when it’s in season…and I don’t care if you call it an herb, vegetable or fruit because it inspires delicious spring desserts that have a satisfying sweet-sour vibe.
The rhubarb plant is a member of the buckwheat family. Botanically, it is classified as a vegetable – a tart, fibrous vegetable with an edible stalk similar to celery. From a culinary perspective, rhubarb is closely aligned with fruits because it is usually used in pies, compotes and gels. And in earlier times – something like the Shang Dynasty in China (1600-1050 BC) – rhubarb roots were used exclusively for medicinal purposes.
So how does one classify this plant that likes to masquerade as a fruit? In my opinion, it doesn’t matter. I see it as an ingredient I like to use to make delicious spring desserts that have a satisfying sweet-sour vibe.
In today’s world, the stalks are the only edible portion of a modern rhubarb plant. The leaves contain far too much oxalic acid – amounts that would certainly cause severe gastric suffering if too much were consumed. The stalks remain tart, although modern growing techniques have resulted in milder and sweeter stalks. This post-industrial rhubarb plant flourished. And together with an increased sugar supply, a rhubarb boom was born in England during the early- to mid-1900’s, along with the development of many sweet recipes that spread throughout Europe and North America.
I’ve always enjoyed rhubarb whenever I came across it but it was more a casual acquaintance to me instead of a true culinary friend. So, I decided several years ago to take a closer look…and I like what I saw.
I liked the cheeky nature of rhubarb impersonating fruit…but it really surprised me to understand how the tartness of rhubarb brought out the best qualities in other foods. Rhubarb’s healthy dose of acid balanced perfectly with anything sweet. Acids also helped carry aromas through food – exactly like a seasoning. I think this is one reason rhubarb matches well with early season strawberries that are often bland tasting and have underdeveloped aromas and weak acids. Just combine a bit of rhubarb with those same strawberries and suddenly the flavor is transformed into something resembling tasty. I like that too.
Rhubarb is one of the few remaining seasonal ingredients I look forward to enjoying when the season arrives. It’s only available from farmer’s markets about 2 months before it quietly fades away until the following year and re-emerges – just like fruit. Again, I like that.
Rhubarb is not fussy to work with – at least in my experience. It is abundant, easy to clean, simple to prepare and inexpensive. And those are traits I really like.
Here are some of my helpful shopping, preparation and cooking tips if you are unfamiliar with rhubarb…followed up of course, with a few delicious recipe ideas…
Rhubarb is available in some locations throughout the year, thanks to production in a hot house. The optimal time to enjoy fresh, field-grown rhubarb is from mid-spring to the beginning of summer – or late April to mid-June if you’re in the northern hemisphere.
Most farmers or growers of rhubarb have a hard cut-off date of June 21 – the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. This harvest cut-off date helps the plant regenerate for the next season, plus later season rhubarb builds up increased levels of oxalic acid.
Selecting and Storing
Choose crisp stalks with small fibers and bright colors. If the leaves are still attached, they should not be wilted or have yellow spots.
Rhubarb is perishable after harvesting, so it is often best to consume it as soon as practical. It will hold about 3-5 days in the refrigerator when wrapped in a paper towel and stored loosely in an open plastic bag.
Rhubarb freezes well. Wash and portion, then lay flat on a baking pan to freeze. Store in an airtight freezer bag…or ideally, vacuum-packed.
Preparing and Cooking
The leaves from the stalks should be completely removed. Trim the bottom portion and remove any tough fibers from the stalks by using a small knife to grab the fiber from the top and pulling down to the bottom. Removing fibers is only necessary if the fibers are noticeable. For most preparations, it is a good idea to portion the stalks in 5-cm (2-inch) pieces.
Rhubarb is mostly stewed in a sweetened liquid, although it can be cooked sous-vide or very gently roasted in the oven. Stew gently in small amounts of liquid and for short periods to preserve color and texture – rapid boiling will cause the stalks to turn mushy. Rhubarb is often paired with some or a mix of the following spices: ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Strong herbs such as bay leaf, thyme and rosemary also work well with rhubarb.
The pigments in rhubarb dilute easily. Minimizing both the cooking liquid and cooking time will help prevent excessive color loss in brightly colored rhubarb.
Rhubarb tends to disintegrate rapidly when cooked; it goes from nearly done to mushy in a matter of seconds. I think it is a good idea to remove rhubarb from the heat just before you think it is completely cooked. Leave it to cool in the cooking liquid and allow the residual heat to complete the cooking process or remove the rhubarb completely from the liquid, cool it slightly while reducing and thickening the cooking liquid, then returning the rhubarb to the liquid as it cools.
Who doesn’t like a good crumble?
For me, crumbles need to have a crispy topping that sort of snaps a bit when your serving spoon goes through it on its way to find the fruit underneath…fruit that is heavy on acidity to cut through any sweetness in that crumble topping. And that describes a well-executed rhubarb crumble.
Most traditional crumble recipes simply combine flour, sugar and lots of fat – mostly butter. Vegan recipes tend to go for the simple alternative and use heavily processed vegan butter, margarine or coconut fat. I prefer to take a different route and combine cashew butter with a bit of unprocessed rapeseed oil in my mixture. For added depth of flavor and crispiness, I include some ground hazelnuts and oat flakes with my flour…and of course a good brown sugar and plenty of spices!
Try serving with a good spoonful of vanilla cashew cream…or if you’re feeling lazy, just a bit of soy yogurt!
Yield: makes about 4-6 servings
750 grams (1 1/2 pounds) Rhubarb
4 tablespoons castor sugar
100 grams (3 ½ ounces) muscovado sugar
50 grams (2 ounces) ground hazelnuts
75 grams (2 1/2 ounces) oat flakes
½ teaspoon ground vanilla bean (see tips)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons psyllium husk (see tips)
70 grams (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
50 grams (1/3 cup) coconut flour
60 grams (1/4 cup) cashew butter
60 grams (1/4 cup) unrefined rapeseed oil
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F)
Begin by preparing the rhubarb. Wash well and cut into 5-cm (2-inch) pieces. Add the rhubarb to a bowl and add the castor sugar to the rhubarb. Mix well to coat evenly, then add the rhubarb and sugar to the baking dish – I use a dish that will hold the rhubarb in a double layer.
Make the crumble topping by combining in a bowl the muscovado sugar, ground hazelnuts, oat flakes and all the spices and sea salt. Mix well, then add the psyllium husk and flours. Mix until well combined.
In a separate small bowl, combine the cashew butter and rapeseed oil. Mix until emulsified and smooth. Add the cashew butter-oil mixture to the flour mixture and combine until mixed – I like to use my fingers for this job. The mixture should be slightly wet and hold together when pinched. Top the rhubarb with the crumble mixture and put into the preheated oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden on top. Enjoy warm or cold.
Tips and Variations
You can use other sugars to replace muscovado sugar. Try an American style soft brown sugar or any other natural cane sugar.
You can make your own ground vanilla bean by drying it at room temperature, then grinding the bean in a coffee grinder. Alternatively, just look for some online or at a health food store. You can add a couple drops of vanilla extract to replace the ground up version I favor.
Psyllium husk works as a binder for the crumble. Use ground flax seeds or ground chia seeds as alternatives.
Replace the all-purpose flour with buckwheat flour for a gluten-free alternative. Buckwheat provides a deep flavor and works well with rhubarb (they come from the same plant family).
The oil can be left out of this recipe is you like. Replace the amounts of oil by adding an additional 30 grams (about 2-3 tablespoons) of cashew butter and about 60 ml. (1/4 cup) non-dairy milk – perhaps a bit of almond milk?
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Rhubarb is an ingredient I only think about during the month of May – peak season in the northern hemisphere. And when I do spot those big bushes with large green leaves and thick bright red stalks, I immediately think about desserts…sweet and sour desserts that let me know the warmth of summer is not far away.
One of my favorite ways to get the full explosion of rhubarb flavors is to make a simple compote using stalks with plenty of red and a touch of green. I keep the spices to a minimum because I want to taste rhubarb…and worship every single bite…usually over a scoop of vegan ice cream or alongside a slice of olive oil cake or crumbly polenta cake.
Yield: makes about 3/4 of liter (3/4 quart)
1 Kg. (2 pounds) fresh rhubarb stalks
200 grams (one cup) granulated sugar
60 ml. (1/4-cup) dry white wine
120 ml. (1/2-cup) water
1 cinnamon stick, broken into two pieces
1 fresh bay leaf
1 tablespoon tapioca flour
Wash the rhubarb well and peel away any tough fibers. Slice diagonally into thick pieces about 3-cm (that’s a bit more than an inch).
Add the sugar, white wine, water, cinnamon stick, bay leaf and rhubarb slices to a wide pot. Heat the pan gently over medium heat and cook the rhubarb until it just begins to soften (anywhere from 5-10 minutes). Remove the rhubarb pieces once they’ve softened and place on a baking pan to gently cool.
Heat the remaining rhubarb syrup to simmering and gently reduce the mixture by about one third. Mix the tapioca starch with 2 tablespoons of water to form a thick paste. Remove the pan from the heat and add the starchy paste to the syrup while continuously whisking. Return the pan to the heat and gently cook the syrup for 5-10 minutes until it thickens (avoid boiling the liquid at this point – it should be a gentle heat).
Remove the pot from the heat, add the rhubarb pieces to the syrup and cool completely at room temperature. Enjoy right away or keep refrigerated for up to 7 days.
Tips and Variations
Use any variety of rhubarb to make this compote. Slightly green stalks will add more flavor and acidity to the compote.
The wine can be replaced with additional water if you want to avoid alcohol.
I enjoy using a sweet wine or champagne as alternatives to a dry white wine, to create new flavor profiles.
I tend to favor keeping spices to a minimum and use only cinnamon for this compote. Other spices to consider include freshly ground nutmeg, black pepper or cloves. I use fresh bay leaves – dried can be used or even a different kind of herb, such as rosemary.
Tapioca works great in acidic conditions. Other starches will work, but their setting ability may wane over time and the compote could become too loose.
Make sure to pay attention to the cooking – this is one preparation you don’t want to walk away from because rhubarb goes from nearly done to overly mushy in a flash. I take the compote off the heat and out of the pan when it just begins to soften, allowing the residual heat to take care of the rest of the cooking.
Keep refrigerated for a week or cool completely and freeze extra compote.
A delicious variation is to add sliced or quartered strawberries to the compote. Add these when the cooked rhubarb is returned to the cooling syrup.
Deep Dish Rhubarb Pie
Rhubarb has a flavor somewhere between apples and cherries, which is how I became inspired to develop this version of rhubarb pie.
Yes, I do love cherry pie…and yes, I do love apple pie. So, making this rhubarb pie seemed like a natural extension to pies I already love to eat during different seasons.
The pie is relatively simple to make. Once the pastry is made and rolled out, it’s only a matter of popping the filling in the pie shell, topping with a layer of pastry and baking. Simple.
Combine the rhubarb with slices of strawberry for a variation that is definitely worth pursuing.
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: makes enough to fill one 20-cm pie
1 recipe Vegan Pastry Dough
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons ground hazelnuts
150 grams (3/4-cup) sugar
1 teaspoon ground vanilla bean
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
500 grams (one pound) rhubarb, sliced into 2-cm (1-inch) thick pieces
4 tablespoons soy milk
1 tablespoon unprocessed rapeseed oil
Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F)
Cut the pastry into 2 pieces, making one piece about 2/3 and the other 1/3. On a well-floured surface, roll out the larger pastry round until it is about 4-cm (1 1/2-inches) larger than the size of the pie pan. Fold the pastry in half and gently place it into the pie pan, covering one half. Unfold the pastry to cover the other half, then gently press the pastry into the pan. Trim the edges and poke holes into the bottom of the pastry with a fork.
Mix together the all-purpose flour, ground hazelnuts, sugar and spices. Take about half of this mixture and cover the bottom of the pan. Arrange the rhubarb pieces on top of the mixture, creating two layers of rhubarb. Cover the rhubarb with the remainder of the sweetened flour and spice mixture.
Roll out the second pastry round as before. Mix together the soy milk and rapeseed oil and apply a light amount along the edge of the pastry. Carefully place the second pastry round onto the first (again folding the dough in half, placing it on the pie, then unfolding). Pinch the edges together, then coat well with the soy-oil mixture.
Create air holes on the top pastry layer by making 2-3 slices through the pastry layer – this will allow steam to escape during the baking process. Place the prepared pie in the refrigerator or freezer for 10 minutes, the pop the pie into the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the pie and turn the oven temperature down to 160°C (325°F). Give the pie another coating of the soy-oil mixture, then place it back into the oven. Bake an additional 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
Cool at least 30 minutes before slicing. Enjoy hot or cold.
Tips and Variations
I like to add about 25-30 grams of buckwheat flour to the vegan pie dough recipe…Just remove about 15 grams of your normal flour. Why buckwheat? Good question… Rhubarb is officially a member of the buckwheat family, so I like to create a synergy in my cooking. Plus, it adds a certain uniqueness to the pie dough.
Make sure you keep your rhubarb slices thick. Otherwise, they will dissolve during the cooking process and the filling will be sort of unpleasant.
Feel free to add other fruits to the mix. I especially like to add fresh strawberries when they are in season. I usually aim for a 50-50 mix in this case.
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I think it’s important to use the best available Vegan Pastry Dough you can find. Here’s how I make Vegan Pastry.
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