Rhubarb has been typecast as a dessert food (think pies or tarts). But this versatile, spring-harvested plant can also be used in many kinds of delicious, savory dishes.
Botanically speaking, rhubarb is a herbaceous vegetable and a member of the buckwheat family. Centuries ago, it was cooked with potatoes in Poland and in stews in Iran and Afghanistan. Today, rhubarb’s long, tart stalks are often sweetened and treated as a fruit in cooking and baking. When purchasing, look for brightly colored stalks that are firm and crisp, like a good piece of celery. The leaves should be fresh looking and free of blemishes, but they are not for eating.
One cup of raw rhubarb contains 2 grams of dietary fiber and only 26 calories. It’s an excellent source of vitamin K, which protects against osteoporosis and encourages healthy clotting. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium and manganese. The redness of rhubarb stalks comes from anthocyanin pigments, a form of flavonoids that function in the body as antioxidants, helping to prevent inflammation and to protect blood vessels from rupturing.
Rhubarb leaves are toxic. This may be due to their high concentration of oxalic acid — the same naturally occurring substance used industrially to clean metals — or to yet-to-be identified chemicals in the plant. A 145-pound person would have to eat 11 pounds of rhubarb leaves to get a lethal dose, but even a fraction of that amount can cause cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous system problems. The leaves taste pretty nasty anyway. So stick to rhubarb’s health-promoting stalks!
Rhubarb has an extremely tart flavor, so sweeteners are usually added to make it more appetizing. Try these healthy alternatives to processed white sugar:
- Rhubarb can be enjoyed raw by drizzling whole stalks or cut sticks with honey, agave nectar or maple syrup. To make as a topping for breakfast cereals or an addition to smoothies, combine 1 cup chopped rhubarb and 1 cup chopped strawberries with 1 tablespoon honey and 1 teaspoon chopped mint. Refrigerate overnight, strain and discard juice.
- For a new twist on apple or pear sauce, substitute rhubarb for one-third of the apples or pears called for in sauce recipes. Add raisins and freshly grated ginger or cinnamon to boost flavor.
- Stewing rhubarb in orange or pineapple juice, or with pineapple chunks, sweetens it and complements its flavor. For a tropical flavor, add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract to every 2 cups of fruit when cooking.
- Rhubarb is great in curry. To create a creamy sauce with a tart note, follow your favorite curry recipe, adding in a stir-fried mix of onions, garlic, ginger and 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped rhubarb.
- When fresh, store rhubarb in the refrigerator tightly wrapped for up to three days.
- To freeze rhubarb, cut the stems into chunks or dice finely, depending on use. Lay out on baking sheet and freeze. After rhubarb is frozen, transfer to freezer bags.
- When cooking, use a nonreactive pan, such as anodized aluminum, stainless steel or a glass baking dish. The acidity in the rhubarb reacts with aluminum, iron and copper pans, and it may turn the pan brown.
Beet Rhubarb Couscous
Makes six servings
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup finely chopped beets
- 1/2 cup chopped rhubarb
- 1/2 cup chiffonade beet greens (cut in thin slivers)
- 1/4 tsp. sea salt
- 1/8 tsp. pepper
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 cup couscous
- Sauté onion, beets and rhubarb in nonstick pan for one minute to soften the onion.
- Add the water and simmer to soften beets, about 10 minutes. This will be thick and the rhubarb with turn into a sauce.
- Stir in greens and cook one minute. Add the couscous, stir to combine, remove heat and cover with lid.
- Let sit for five minutes, remove lid and fluff with fork.
Per serving (1/2 cup):
Calories 120; Protein 4 g; T otal Fat 0 g; Saturated Fat 0 g; Carbohydrates 27 g; Dietary Fiber 2 g; C holesterol 0 mg; Sodium 110 mg|
Apple Rhubarb Compote
Makes 9 cups
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 tbs. minced fresh ginger
- 3 pounds cored, peeled and chopped Granny Smith apples (about 12)
- 3 cups unsweetened apple juice or apple cider
- 2 tbs. orange zest
- 1 cup unsweetened orange juice
- 1 tsp. lime zest
- 1 tsp. lime juice
- 1 cup diced rhubarb
- 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- In a noncorrosive or stainless steel saucepot, heat the honey and ginger together and simmer for two to three minutes.
- Add the apples and stir to coat with honey mixture.
- Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes or until product is thick with most of its liquid reduced down to syrup.
- Cool, cover and refrigerate.
Per serving (2 tablespoons):
Calories 25; Protein 0 g; Total Fat 0 g; Saturated Fat 0 g; Carbohydrates 7 g; Dietary Fiber less than 1 gram; Cholesterol 0 mg; Sodium 0 mg|
Rhubarb Strawberry Smoothie
Using frozen strawberries and rhubarb makes extra-creamy smoothies, and tastes like spring in a glass.
Makes one serving
- 1/2 cup frozen strawberries
- 1/2 cup frozen chopped rhubarb
- 1/2 cup vanilla yogurt
- 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 tbs. maple syrup
- Place the ingredients in blender and purée until smooth and creamy.
Calories 270; Protein 6 g; Total Fat 1.5 g; Saturated Fat 1 g; Carbohydrates 60 g; Dietary Fiber 3 g; Cholesterol 5 mg; Sodium 80 mg
This article has been updated. It originally appeared online on April 1, 2009.