Reaping the rewards of rhubarb…

One of the delights of spring is the rainbow of colour that bursts up from the ground, and rhubarb has to be one of the brightest of them all. Technically a vegetable (although generally considered a fruit), only the stalks can be eaten – pretty as those green leaves are, they are rhubarb 2also poisonous. Known as the ‘pie plant’ (for obvious reasons!) rhubarb can have either red or green stalks, but red is generally preferred for culinary use because it’s sweeter.

Because rhubarb has the texture of celery, it has to be cooked to be eaten, and it needs a good dollop of sweetener of some kind for it to taste palatable; that being said, this unusual plant has been prized as a medicinal root since ancient Greek times. So tuck in!

Chatty plant

Rather fascinatingly, rhubarb actually makes a sound as it groForced rhubarbws. In Yorkshire, England, there is an area known as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, where commercially-grown rhubarb is moved from fields into ‘forcing sheds’. Here the plant is engulfed in pitch black, making it think it’s underground, so must grow faster to reach the sunlight. This technique makes the plant grow so fast, you can actually hear the crackle and pop as it reaches up.

Rhubarb science

There are good reasons people have continued to eat this strange plant, despite the drawbacks (the sourness, for a start; not to mention the oxalic acid released by the leaves which is what causes severe illness in some people). It’s an absolute nutrition powerhouse of goodness! A quick note: have a chat with your doctor if you have a pre-existing gastro-intestinal or kidney issue before going crazy on the rhubarb.

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  • One of nature’s least calorific vegetables (100g has just 21 calories), rhubarb is often a good choice for people wanting to lose weight. Eaten regularly, rhubarb is also one of the foods that can increase your metabolic rate, meaning you’ll burn fat faster. What’s not to love here?
  • Because rhubarb has no saturated fat or cholesterol, it’s good for heart health, and because it’s high in dietary fibre, it can also increase levels of good cholesterol. The high levels of antioxidants also make rhubarb a good choice for anyone with cardiovascular issues.
  • Rhubarb is a good digestion aid, and has been traditionally used as a cure for constipation. More recent research has found rhubarb to be beneficial for a number of digestive issues, including bloating, cramping and even colorectal cancers.
  • Rhubarb is a premium source of Vitamin K, which is essential for bone health. and is needed in diets for neuronal health. Vitamin K stimulates cognitive activity, and may help delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimers Disease.
  • The red stalk varieties are also higher in Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant, good for skin and eyesight.
Grow your own

This hardy crop is one of the easiest to grow, as it can cope with hot or cold; even frost; however it’s not a fan of sandy soil, and doesn’t grow well if the soil is too wet. If you’re a first-time gardener, or you’re a bit worried about the green-ness of your thumb, rhubarb is a good starting point for you.

  • Plant in well-drained soil that’s been fertilised with compost and sheep pellets, in full sun, either in the ground or in a container.
  • Rhubarb can be planted from seed or from seedlings in clumps from the garden centre; however be aware that you will have to wait a season or two to get good rhubarb from seed. Sow the seeds in spring, and transplant once little leaves appear.
  • Water well during dry weather; however rhubarb will recover well from a drier spell.
  • Pick when your rhubarb looks thick enough, but be careful not to leave it too long as it will become woody and tough.
Ridiculously good Rhubarb Sorbet

So simple, and so beautiful in colour, rhubarb sorbet is a great alternative to a pie or pudding.

Preparation time: 35 minutes plus 6 hours’ freezing. Makes approx. 1 litre

  • 3 1/2 cups (around 5 stalks) red rhubarb
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups caster sugar 
  • Zest of 2 oranges (approx. 2 teaspoons)*
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
*Lemons make a zingy alternative to orange

Cook the rhubarb, water, sugar, orange zest, ginger and salt in a pan until boiling. Rhubarb sorbet

Simmer for 10 minutes, remove from heat, and sieve mixture into a bowl.

Cool mixture, transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth.

Freeze in an airtight container, whisking through with a fork every hour to aerate.

Serve with a sprig of mint, or a sprinkle of chopped pistachio nuts.

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