If you live in New England, you are probably seeing rhubarb everywhere you look right now- supermarkets, farmer's markets, in your CSA box, or even in your (or your friend's) backyard! This is the best time of the year for fresh rhubarb, so now is a good time to acquaint yourself and see what you have been missing!
Rhubarb is an herbaceous, perennial vegetable- the stalks (which are actually called petioles) that grow from short, thick rhizomes or stems are actually the only part of the plant that is edible. In the US, it is often considered a fruit, since it is mainly used as a fruit in culinary practices- however technically it is a veggie. The leaf stalks are the most commonly used parts of rhubarb, sometimes as a dessert or an ingredient in sweet dishes. On their own however, fresh raw leaf stalks are crisp and extremely tart. They resemble a long red celery in appearance, and vary from just blushing to crimson.
Rhubarb are cultivated throughout the year in different parts of the world, so they are widely available in almost any season. They can be grown in greenhouses, resulting in “hothouse” rhubarb, which is sweeter and a deeper red, while traditional rhubarb is grown outside. Additionally, they are extremely easy to grow-in fact almost difficult to kill- requiring little nurturing or watering. In New England, rhubarb is generally harvested July through mid September- the later the sweeter- and are ready to eat as soon as they are harvested.
Rhubarb is a great addition to your garden because they help ward of deer, and serve as a natural pesticide by repelling mosquitos, ticks and mites. This is mainly due to their poisonous leaves- important note: keep dogs, cats and kids away from the leaves, they are poisonous when ingested! I have heard though, that rubbing the leaves on your arms and legs can serve as a natural repellant- I haven't actually tried this yet because having a rhubarb leaf handy when you need bug repellant isn't common, but I will certainly give it a go!
The triangular leaves of the rhubarb are extremely high in oxalic acid, which can cause severe illness in people, resulting in the common belief that rhubarb is poisonous- it is not, and in fact it takes a whole lot of leaves to kill you if you are healthy to begin with, but it is best to stay away from them. After the first frost, don't harvest your rhubarb to eat as the oxalic acid can migrate down the petiole.
Nutritional Value Of Rhubarb
One of the main reasons why people cultivate and eat rhubarb is for its astounding nutritional value. Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it ideal for keeping our bodies healthy. Some of these amazing attributes are dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. In terms of organic compounds or antioxidants, rhubarb is a rich source of polyphenolic flavonoids like beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin,
Rhubarb is one of the lowest caloric vegetables on the market, and as such, it is often recommended for people who are struggling to lose weight, but still want to remain healthy. Additionally, the impact that the various organic compounds in rhubarb have on the body’s metabolism can also dramatically increase the rate that the body burns fat, thus helping you lose weight in another way!
Historically, rhubarb was used in China and Ancient Greece medicinally as a natural laxative. Ben Franklin, was even a big fan rhubarb powder for medicinal purposes (I guess he needed a lot of laxatives...)! Today however rhubarb is used mostly culinarily in pies, crumbles, juices, pickled (yes we Scandinavians pickle everything including rhubarb!) and some savory dishes. You can even find rhubarb beer and wine in the UK!
To cook rhubarb, cut stalks in to smaller pieces and boil in water water with a touch of sugar to take out some of the acidity- until just tender- then use in a savory or sweet dish. When using in a juice or smoothie, simply juice raw, but be prepared for the tart flavor- cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg are great to offset the tartness and enhance the flavor!
However you choose to consume rhubarb, here are some additional reasons why you should.
Treats Cardiovascular Diseases
Rhubarb is extremely low in fat and cholesterol, the vegetable can actually increase the levels of good cholesterol due to the presence of dietary fiber, which is known to scrape excess cholesterol from the walls of blood vessels and arteries. Also, the impressive amount of antioxidants in rhubarb ensure that free radicals don’t cause heart disease and a wide range of other dangerous health conditions.
Our digestive system plays a huge part in our overall health, so it is important to keep the digestive system healthy and regulated. The large amount of dietary fiber found in rhubarb can guarantee a healthy digestive system by bulking up stool and making sure that bowel movements are smooth and regular. Rhubarb has traditionally been used as a cure for constipation, but it was only recently discovered why it had such a powerful effect. By easing constipation and other digestive issues, you can prevent a wide range of more serious gastrointestinal disorders, including bloating, cramping, and even colorectal cancer.
The most prominent vitamin in rhubarb is a vitamin K, and while it doesn’t often get as much attention as some of the other vitamins, Vitamin K plays a very significant role in brain and neuronal health. It can prevent the oxidation of brain cells and stimulate cognitive activity, thereby helping to delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Antioxidants have been widely studied in recent years due to their ability to neutralize free radicals throughout the body. Free radicals are byproducts of cellular metabolism that can cause healthy cells to mutate or die, often resulting in cancer or other chronic diseases. Rhubarb is a good source of beta carotene and other polyphenolic compounds, such as lutein and zeaxanthin which act in a similar way to vitamin A, protecting the skin and eyes from the effects of free radicals. A decent amount of antioxidants in your diet can help avoid premature aging, cataracts, macular degeneration, and wrinkles. Furthermore, these polyphenolic compounds have been connected to preventing oral and lung cancers!
Improves Blood Circulation
The trace amounts of copper and iron found in rhubarb are enough to stimulate the production of new red blood cells, increasing the total RBC count in the body and increasing oxygenation of essential areas of the body, which improves their function and boosting the overall metabolism of the body.
Words of Caution
Rhubarb can be pretty potent, and for that reason, you should consult a physician or avoid it if you have a pre-existing kidney condition or certain gastrointestinal conditions, as it can make them worse.