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Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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Rhubarb: The Misunderstood Vegetable

Phil Gurley

By Steve Peters

Photo by Steve Peters

Photo by Steve Peters

With tall fibrous stalks in shades of green, pink and ruby red, rhubarb is our favorite spring fruit. Though rhubarb is extremely tart on its own, we balance that out by using it in desserts, and pairing it with sweet ingredients, such as strawberries. Yet despite our fruit like tendencies for enjoying rhubarb, it is not a fruit at all. Rhubarb is entirely a vegetable.

The misclassification exists mainly here in the United States. In 1947 the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York ruled that rhubarb would from then on be considered a fruit. Why would the court make a ruling on rhubarb? They wanted lower taxes. The change in classification meant that if considered a fruit, rhubarb would be taxed less than as a vegetable. I’m guessing that the judge must have had an affinity for rhubarb pie.

Since the colonial days, pie is probably the most commonly perceived use for rhubarb. But for thousands of years prior the Chinese have benefited from its medicinal qualities. When used as an herbal remedy, rhubarb can benefit the digestive system. The roots are dried out and made into a tea that is used for everything from a digestive tonic to mild laxative to appetite enhancer. In fact, rhubarb is one of the most used herbs in Chinese medicine. It was only in the 18th century that Europe found culinary uses for rhubarb and the 19th century before it made its first appearances in New England gardens.

Photo by Steve Peters

Photo by Steve Peters

It seems that there are three camps of people when it comes to rhubarb. You either love it, hate it or (somehow) have never heard of it. If you’re still reading, hopefully I’ve already solved the latter issue.

For the lovers, you might want to take a trip to the state of Washington. Washington grows more than 275 acres of rhubarb – more than half America’s supply! Sumner, Washington also happens to be the rhubarb pie capital of the world. Who, knew?

Or you could just grow your own rhubarb patch in the backyard. This perennial will give you many years of production. Plant your rhubarb crowns in early spring, fertilizer and mulch in the first year and wait to harvest until the following year. By the third year, you should have an 8-10 week harvest beginning in early spring.

You don’t have to use your rhubarb harvest all at once because it freezes rather well. Just wash and slice into small pieces and spread out on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer the rhubarb to resealable bags and use within a year. Do not, however, use or consume rhubarb leaves. They are toxic.

If you consider yourself a rhubarb hater, I understand completely. I was once you. Since a kid I thought there was something completely off putting by its bizarre tanginess. And the overwhelming amount of sugar used in attempt to make rhubarb appealing didn’t work for me either. Along with slimy mushrooms and mushy eggplant, as an adult, I learned how to cook foods the way I like (and believe) they should be cooked.

When it comes to rhubarb these days, I now seek it out each spring from our local farms. In the kitchen, I look for ways to enjoy it without having to pile on the sugar. Most recently, I made rhubarb chutney that might use rhubarb more like a vegetable than a fruit. But don’t tell anyone – or I might owe some additional taxes.

Rhubarb Chutney

Photo by Steve Peters

Photo by Steve Peters

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces rhubarb
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • A splash of apple cider vinegar
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 orange

Wash and chop the rhubarb into half inch pieces. Roughly chop the onion. Heat a pan over medium high heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the rhubarb and onion and let cook until rhubarb has softened and released its juices and the onion is tender. About 10 minutes.

While that cooks, grate the ginger and mince the garlic. Add to the pan when ready to go.

After 10 minutes of cooking, add the honey, vinegar and raisins. Taste and season with salt as you see fit. After 5 more minutes of simmering, add the zest and juice of the orange. Stir. Remove from heat and let cool to thicken.

Try the rhubarb chutney with pork and fish or simply on toast with melted cheese.

Steve Peters works at RAFFL where he manages communications and food education. To find more of his rhubarb recipes visit Everydaychef.org or for more of his food writing check out the Rutland Bites column in the Rutland Reader. You can reach him at steve@rutlandfarmandfood.org.

A version of this story appeared in the June 3rd edition of the Rutland Herald.