Whatcom Locavore: Time to savor the flavor of fresh rhubarb

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 21, 2013 

Rhubarb is much more versatile than its reputation suggests - it's not just for pie anymore. This recipe combines it with blueberries to make ice cream.

JOAN GING — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Rhubarb is a vegetable I haven't been particularly fond of eating. I think it goes back to childhood and tasting a particularly sour rhubarb pie. Or perhaps it was finding out that the lovely giant leaves on their beautiful red and green stalks were deadly poison.

Anyway, I wasn't very enthused when readers asked when I was going to do an article about rhubarb. "There's so much of it around right now," said one friend. "I really need some fresh ideas."

Being a person who likes to encourage home gardening, and also a person who hates to see food go to waste, I decided it was time to give rhubarb a fresh chance and see if my childhood aversion was still valid. I'm glad I did!

Nutritionally, rhubarb is an amazing source of calcium. One cup of cooked rhubarb has as much calcium as a glass of milk (although calcium from plants is not as easily absorbed). Rhubarb is also a good source of potassium, vitamin A and nutritional fiber, containing about 5 grams of fiber per cooked cup.

Rhubarb is a very productive perennial plant. It's usually propagated by planting rhizomes, or roots. Rhubarb grows wild in northwest China and Tibet, where it has been used as a medicine for at least 2,000 years.

It is now cultivated as a food plant throughout Europe and most of the United States and Canada. Ben Franklin is credited with sending some of the first rhubarb from Europe to the American colonies.

Rhubarb leaves sprout from the ground early in the spring. The leaves themselves can be more than a foot wide or long, and the leaf stalks can grow several feet high. As I mentioned earlier, the triangular leaves can be quite deadly. They contain oxalic acid crystals in very high quantities which can cause swelling of the throat and tongue, blocking the ability to breathe. (Oxalic acid, in much lower concentrations, is also found in spinach, chard and beet greens.)

Rhubarb stalks, with the leaves removed, can be safely eaten either raw or cooked. The stalks are similar to the shape and texture of celery (although there are no "strings" on the outside of rhubarb stalks as there are on celery).

The stalks are usually harvested when about 15 to 18 inches long and very tender. To harvest, grab a stalk near the bottom, pull and twist. Chop just below the leaves and just above the root end, wash the stalks, and they are ready to prepare for cooking.

As with asparagus, also cultivated from a root, it's best not to harvest rhubarb the first year after the roots have been planted. That allows the leaves to feed the roots and help them get well-established.

After the first year, though, the entire plant can be harvested several times in a growing season. It's best not to take more than a third of the leaves at one time, though. New leaves will grow back again until it becomes too cold in the winter.

Rhubarb is used so often in pies that it's been nicknamed "the pie plant." However, it's much more versatile than its reputation suggests. People use rhubarb to make breads, muffins, cakes, and other desserts, but rhubarb can also be used to make savory sauces for enhancing meat and vegetable dishes. I even found a recipe for rhubarb chili!

It's best to cook rhubarb in a stainless steel or nonstick pan. Because of its acidity, it can react with and stain aluminum or copper pots.

Fresh rhubarb will keep in the refrigerator for several days. However it is easily frozen or canned, or made into jams and jellies. Rhubarb also makes an excellent wine.

Since I previously didn't enjoy eating rhubarb, I don't have any in my home garden. Instead, I found some beautiful certified organic rhubarb at Terra Verde's stand at the Bellingham Farmers Market (Railroad Avenue and Chestnut Street).

I began by asking farmer Amy Fontaine what she knew about cooking with rhubarb. She recommended combining it with fruit, in a ratio of two thirds rhubarb to one third fruit. "Most people like to mix it with strawberries," she said, "but I especially like it with raspberries."

I didn't have any raspberries left in the freezer, so I used blueberries instead. See what you think!

RHUBARB BLUEBERRY ICE CREAM

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)

1/2 cup milk (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)

3/4 cup honey, split (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)

1 pound trimmed rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 to 31/2 cups) (Terra Verde Gardens, Everson)

8 ounces fresh or frozen blueberries (I used frozen, Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)

2 tablespoons Eau de Vie Apple Brandy (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)

Directions

Scald the milk and cream by mixing both in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat when bubbles begin to appear on the surface, just before the liquid starts to boil. Do not let the mixture reach a full boil. Remove from heat.

Add about 1/4 of the honey to the milk and cream mixture, stirring until the honey is completely combined. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.

While the cream is cooling, put chopped rhubarb and the rest of the honey (1/2 cup) in a saucepan over medium heat. When it starts to boil, reduce heat to medium-low and continue to simmer, stirring frequently, until rhubarb is very soft, about 12 minutes. You don't want any crispness left in the texture of the rhubarb.

When the rhubarb is done cooking, remove from heat and puree with a stick blender.

Puree the frozen (or fresh) blueberries in a food processor, or use a stick blender.

Combine the cooked rhubarb, blueberry puree, cooled cream mixture and Eau de Vie. Cover the bowl and put in the refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. It usually takes 20-30 minutes.

Makes about 1 quart of ice cream.

Reach Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or nancy@whatcomlocavore.com. To follow her day to day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (www.facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at whatcomlocavore.com.


LOCAVORE RESOURCES

You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.

Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham

Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996

Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959

BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720

Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham

Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060

Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699

Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859

Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158

Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden

Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747

Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151

The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869

Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433

The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190

Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639

Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden

The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797

Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398

Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637

Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020

Reach JULIE SHIRLEY at julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2261.

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