I notice that new leaves are beginning to unfurl on the rhubarb plants in our garden. Truly, this is an amazing plant that starts pushing up new life in the middle of winter.
Coincidentally, the March issue of Martha Stewart Living is out with an article about rhubarb written by yours truly. Martha has kept me busy the last few months. March is the garden issue and a good time to be thinking about rhubarb. Again, I just wrote the text. I had nothing to do with the recipes. But this time I was writing not just about food, but about the history of rhubarb and how to grow it.
My first experience with rhubarb was watching my dad plant it in the back yard. He dug lots of manure into the soil. I happened to walk up behind him while he was spreading cow manure and got stuck with the tine of his pitchfork right between the eyes. I suppose I was lucky to come away with both eyes intact. I remember quite a bit of excitement about getting me to a doctor for a tetanus shot.
We don't think too much about rhubarb today, but for centuries it was among the most valued of all plants. The roots of rhubarb have a purgative effect that fit perfectly into the ancient medicinal scheme of balancing the bodies "humours." It used to be that a cathartic was good for just about anything that ailed you. For centuries, the dried root of rhubarb plants were exported from China. The Russians valued this trade so much that they monopolized it under the royal crown.
Naturally, certain Europeans had an intense interest in getting their hands on some living rhubarb and growing it themselves. China would have none of that, so although seeds sometimes made their way west, the identity of the rhubarb so valued in medicine remained a mystery. Thankfully for us, that did not stop rhubarb from being planted, leading to the discovery that the stalks--with lots of sugar--could be turned into a fine dessert. As refined sugar became more readily available, rhubarb as something to be eaten caught fire.
While the stalks are merely sour, rhubarb leaves contain enough oxalic acid to make them toxic. The same effect in a more pleasant form can be found in a rhubarb cousin, the sorrel or "dock." If you do decide to grow rhubarb, keep it out of the reach of children and grazing animals. Compost the leaves.
In our family, spring meant tons of something we called "rhubarb sauce." This was actually a stew made from the stalks with lots of sugar. There would be a large pot bubbling on the stove, then what seemed an interminable amount of "sauce" that we ate for breakfast, for lunch, on ice cream. Pitchers of it filled the refrigerator.
The spread in Martha Stewart Living has some lovely recipes for rhubarb tarts, poached rhubarb, a rhubarb tea cake. If I had any quibbles with the article, it might be the lack of a savory rhubarb treatment. Apparently the Iranians and the Afghanis use rhubarb in stews, and chefs in this country are pairing it with wild game.
This year we'll be making rhubarb pies from our own rhubarb. Now that's something I can get excited about.