Rabbi Rebecca Joseph is a conservative rabbi, a cultural anthropologist, and a Tuv Ha’Aretz member! Her blog, The Parve Baker is filled with delicious recipes and (equally delicious) words of Torah. Over the summer, she will spearhead The Jew & The Carrot’s “Unboxed” segment – periodic posts that aim to demystify summer’s most seasonal produce.
A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting my cousin who lives year-round in a largely rural, but fast-developing part of Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania. Beth is a great cook and friendly with several local farmers. We stopped by Jim and Kathy Lyons’ Blue Moon Acres for organic micro-greens and spent a morning in the lavender fields at Carousel Farm with another organic grower, Niko Christou. At None Such Farm Market, which sells produce grown across the road and on other nearby farms, we acquired asparagus and rhubarb, the true harbingers of harvests-to-come in the Northeast.
Surely, this is how I could spend many glorious days! Fortunately for me, tied as currently I am to an urban life, field rhubarb is now available in farmers’ markets around New York City. It seems to be in everyone’s kitchens, as well. From the frequent questions I get, it seems that rhubarb remains a mystery, an “out of the box” sort of ingredient that we think we should like, but are unsure how to use.
The confusion begins with how we usually classify it. Rhubarb’s intense tartness is tempered with generous amounts of sugar in most recipes. It dissolves well into pie fillings, sauces, and jams. As such, we use it and think of it as a fruit. The edible stalks, which look like a red cousin to green celery, should tip us off that something is amiss.
Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable in the buckwheat family. This attractive, leafy perennial likes temperate and cold climates. The inedible leaves contain a high concentration of oxalic acid and are typically removed before sale. When ingested, they can cause weakness, as well damage to the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems and also to the kidneys. Oxalic acid is a skin and eye irritant, too. The good news is that rhubarb stalks, the only parts of the plant that we eat, contain vitamins A, B, and C.
Despite its hearty appearance, rhubarb is highly perishable. For best results, choose crisp, bright red stalks. Remove and discard any leaves immediately. Fresh rhubarb stalks can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for several days. Always wash the stalks before using and take off any coarse outer fibers as you chop or slice. Rhubarb can be frozen uncooked cut into pieces or as a sweetened sauce.
Rhubarb and ginger are a great combination, though strawberries are more frequently combined with this “out of the box” spring veggie in the United States. The Jew and The Carrot’s editor, Leah Koenig, tells me that “everyone makes crisp” with rhubarb. My mom always made pies. I slip some into applesauce as a side dish. Try my Rhubarb Muffins for breakfast or brunch. Substitute butter for the parve margarine and cow’s milk for the vanilla soymilk for a dairy version.
For the next few weeks, at least, it’s a rhubarb world!