Rhubarb: Fruit or Vegetable?

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If you take a look in the very back corner of most back yards you will find the unsung hero of the frugal kitchen.  If you are like me I want to feed my family well, but there are sometimes financial restraints that make it difficult.  It takes very little effort to grown this versatile “fruit”.  If growing it is not an option, rhubarb is not usually difficult to find.  Simple ask the farmer who you purchase your meats, eggs and veggies from if they grow it.  Usually they don’t even think that the bounty that they have tucked away in a back corner of the yard would be sought after by their customers.  Usually it is available at the farmers market too.

What is Rhubarb Anyway?

Fruit or vegetable?  What is rhubarb classified as?  Technically it is a vegetable, but more often than not it is used as a fruit. 

It is a long lived perennial plant that is grown from short, thick, woody rhizomes.  It is very simple to get your own patch going by finding someone who is dividing their plant or purchase a rhizome from the garden center. 

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Because it has a long life span it is important to prepare your planting site with large amounts of compost.  Then simple plant your little rhizome, water and watch it grow.  It is important to let your plant grow the first year without harvesting any stalks.  This allows the plant to produce a strong root system that will reward you in the years to come with a bounty of long, fleshy, edible stalks. 

Rhubarb stalks varies in colour from light green, speckled light pink, light purple to crimson red.  Colour doesn’t necessary affect the flavor of rhubarb, but does affect the eye appeal of items made with it.  I personally prefer the more colourful rhubarbs. 

The leaves of rhubarb contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous.  Therefore, all the leaf must be cut from the stalks and discarded.  When we are harvesting rhubarb we cut the leaves off right in the garden and mulch around each plant that we have removed the stalks from.  I have also read that you can make a homemade bug deterrent by soaking the leaves in water then spraying onto affected plants. 

In our region we can usually get two pickings from the plants.   When we harvest in June we leave a few stalks on the plants.  This allows them to regrow better over the summer.  In the early fall (end of August/beginning of September for us) we can get a small picking.  This picking is not usually “put by”, but used for muffins or pies.

Each fall when the leaves start to die back, add a top dressing of compost around the base of each plant.  This will keep your plants healthy for years to come.  Our mother plant has been producing for twenty five years already.  We have divided it many times over the years in order to increase our plantings. 

So Simple and Versatile

Rhubarb is so simple to cook and has such a wide variety of uses.  Most commonly the stalks are cut into small pieces and gently cooked until soft.  Then sugar or honey is added to taste.  Rhubarb contains a lot of moisture so when I cook rhubarb I will normally add just enough water or fruit juice to cover the bottom of the pan.  Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are often added to cooked rhubarb then eaten cold like applesauce.  Jams and pies and crisps are another sweet treat made with rhubarb.  Because of their tart nature, these items use a lot of sugar. Finally rhubarb can be used to make wines, juices and relishes.

It is often paired with strawberries to make the classic spring pie.

But, How Do You Use It?

Rhubarb is a mainstay in our house.  It is simple to grow, harvest and preserve.  You can make such an array of different items from it.

We always have a rhubarb fruit mixture in the fridge for use in smoothies that we use every day.  It is so simple to make this smoothie base.  We simply mix three quarts of home canned rhubarb with eight cups of frozen strawberries.  Then allow the strawberries to thaw and then stir all together.  The mixture always contains strawberries, but occasionally we will add apple slices, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries or hascaps depending what is in season. 

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Canning Rhubarb

This week Lisa has been processing rhubarb.  We have about twenty (you read that right) plants to harvest.  As you can see from the photos she starts out with a little fun in the garden.  She takes the biggest knife that she can find (which is a twelve inch butcher knife) to cut off the leaves.  Then into the house it comes for washing and chopping.  If the rhubarb is being canned we cook it before putting into the jars.  If we didn’t it would cook down to hardly any rhubarb in the jars, just water.  When it is soft, it is packed into the jars leaving a half inch head space.  Then we water bath can it for 15 minutes. 

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This whole process does take some time up front, but we consider it “fast food” when we can simply go to the well stocked cellar shelves in the dead of winter to pull out jars of like-fresh food that have that summer taste.

Homemade Smoothie

In the blender we mix one cup of our homemade yogurt (made with milk from our Jersey cow), a half cut of rhubarb fruit mix one tablespoon of ground flax and stevia leaf powder to the desired sweetness for each glass.

The Perfect Chutney

Another favourite use of rhubarb is a Rhubarb Apple Chutney.  It is a perfect accompaniment to our homegrown roast beef or pork.  It is a wonderful blend of sweet and spicy flavours.  Because apples are not in season when the rhubarb growth is at its maximum, we chop and freeze bags of rhubarb to use when the apples come on.  Give the recipe below a try and let me know what you think.

Click on Recipe Card for printable PDF

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How do you use rhubarb?  Do you ignore that monstrous plant in the corner of your yard because you don’t know what to do with it, or is it an important part of your family’s food supply, like it is in our home.  I would love to hear your ideas.