Some of my favorite spring vegetables include lettuce, spinach, asparagus and rhubarb.
One of my favorite spring desserts is a slice of warm rhubarb pie with ice cream.
Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is a cool-season perennial vegetable that was introduced to the United States at the end of the 18th century. Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. It was initially cultivated for its medicinal qualities. Rhubarb forms thick red, pink or green petioles (stalks) with large extravagant green leaves.
Rhubarb grows best where plants will receive full sun in fertile, well-drained soils that have good organic matter. Plant rhubarb in the early spring while plants are dormant. Avoid harvesting the plants the first year, and only lightly harvest for one to two weeks during the second year. Full harvest may begin the third or fourth year depending on the plant size. Harvest for eight to ten weeks.
Rhubarb has a sour, tart, tangy flavor; you could say it is mouth-puckering. To minimize the tartness, most people find it necessary to sweeten rhubarb with sugar, honey or fruit juice. Rhubarb is often combined with strawberries; it is rarely eaten raw. It can be purchased from a u-pick grower or a supermarket. In central Illinois, harvesting usually begins in late May and can continue until late July.
The flavor depends on the cultivar. Reliable red-stalked cultivars include: Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, MacDonald, Ruby and Valentine. Victoria is a reliable green-stalked cultivar. Generally the deeper red the stalk, the more flavorful. Medium-sized stalks are generally more tender than large ones.
Harvest 10- to 15-inch stalks by snapping them, rather than cutting them off. Grab a stalk down where it emerges from the ground, and pull up and slightly to one side. Harvest only a third of the stalks from a plant at one time. Immediately after harvesting, cut off and discard the leaves. If purchasing rhubarb, look for flat, crisp stalks, not curled or limp.
Rhubarb leaves should never be eaten, they contain oxalic acid, a toxin that can cause poisoning when large quantities of raw or cooked leaves are ingested.
Rhubarb is 95 percent water and one cup of diced rhubarb contains about 26 calories, 2 grams dietary fiber and 351 mg of potassium. Due to its acidic nature (pH of 3.1), avoid cooking rhubarb in reactive metal pots such as aluminum, iron and copper.
Rhubarb can be prepared and served many different ways: pies, tarts, breads, cobbler, cakes, jams, sauces, puddings and salads. My favorite rhubarb recipe is a longtime family favorite.
Rhubarb upside-down cake
• 1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 4 cups of chopped rhubarb
• 1 yellow cake mix prepared according to directions on the box
Into a 13x9-inch baking pan pour melted margarine and sprinkle with brown sugar. Spread chopped rhubarb over the sugar mixture. Prepare a yellow cake mix according to the directions on the box. Pour batter over rhubarb. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes or until cake is done.
Jennifer Fishburn is horticulture educator for University of Illinois Extension, Logan-Menard-Sangamon Unit.
For more information on growing and using rhubarb, visit the University of Illinois Extension “Watch Your Garden Grow” website at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/veggies/rhubarb.cfm