Rhubarb: The Diet Essential
Ashley Farnell, Culinary Magician
Recently I returned home to England for March Break, and was astounded to find every food magazine or restaurant menu full of rhubarb recipes. It has really become very popular, is very good and extremely healthy.
We think of rhubarb as a fruit. The first record of its use was in 2700BCE in China, where rhubarb was used in medicines for its purgative qualities. The Greek Discorides, one of the most celebrated pharmacologists of ancient times, spoke of the root "Rha' or 'Rheon', which came from the Bosphorous, the strait that separates Europe from Asia. Down through the centuries, parts of the rhubarb plant have been used to treat everything from stomachache to venereal disease.
Rhubarb likes cold, wet weather, and having migrated to Britain in the 18th century, thrives in the 'Golden Triangle'.
Step into the secret sheds of the rhubarb triangle and you enter a quieter, more relaxing world.
Hushed workers gather armfuls of rhubarb by candlelight. The only noise, a gentle hum of the heater keeping the plants warm in the darkness. In the nursery sheds the silence is so complete you can actually hear the rhubarb growing. The air is filled with the ripping sounds of the buds opening up and developing into stalks. The rhubarb triangle is an area of west Yorkshire farms bordered by my hometown of Leeds, along with Wakefield and Bradford.
But it was the forcing sheds that gave the Rhubarb Triangle its edge. The plants spend two years out in the open, absorbing sunshine and storing energy. Once in the sheds they are placed in darkness and warmed by heat that was once supplied by abundant cheap coal from the Yorkshire coalfield. This allows the rhubarb plants to concentrate on growing longer, sweeter stalks, rather than producing leaves to absorb sunlight.
The technique was developed in the 1870s and over the years it has been honed to perfection. But the Yorkshire growers jealously guarded their secret - strangers weren't welcome in the shed.
The Forcing Shed's heyday was in the 1940s and 50s, there were two hundred growers in the Rhubarb Triangle and they produced 90% of the world's winter rhubarb.
Now there are only, but they are working flat out to meet the demands of supermarkets, small shops and restaurants, who are finding that health conscious consumers are lapping up the magical properties of the delicious red stick with poisonous yellow leaves.
Britain's supermarkets report a 100 percent growth in sales in the last year, faster than any other vegetable. Enough rhubarb was sold in January 2006 by one supermarket chain to make a crumble the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
This year (2006) demand has exceeded all expectations, and one particular grower had to increase production to 1000 tons, compared to 500 tons five years ago.
Rhubarb is expensive to grow, like chicory and asparagus, requiring painstaking methods and a great deal of attention. The new popularity of rhubarb boils down to its properties as a "superfood", as identified by proponents of the trendy GI diet and other diet regimes. It is low in carbohydrate, high in vitamins, and is also said to speed up the metabolism and aid weight loss. Eating the vegetable gets rid of sugar craving and turns you into a "savoury person".
The renaissance of rhubarb, which is available nine months of the year thanks to indoor and outdoor cultivation, has led to an explosion in imaginative ways to cook it. Celebrity chefs extol its healthful properties and swoon over its sensuality and comforting qualities.
Rhubarb consumption includes rhubarb smoothies and rhubarb vodka. It's delicious as a liquer, or in a fizzy drink. You just crush the raw rhubarb with sugar and leave overnight. The next day, add a bottle of vodka, and put in a jar for two-three weeks. Drain the liquid, and leave it to mellow for a month - if you can keep your hands off it that long. Cutting -edge chefs are also pairing its fibrous sharpness with oily fish or lamb. More goodies include rhubarb steamed pudding, rhubarb brulee and rhubarb meringue pie, served with rhubarb sorbet. At one time powder made from rhubarb was used to soften leather and colour hair. What a waste.
* Rhubarb is classified as a vegetable because it has no seeds
* There are more than 20 species of rhubarb
* "Forced" rhubarb (grown indoors in the dark) is harvested by candlelight so as not to affect the quality of the crop
* The West riding of Yorkshire is the main centre of "forced" rhubarb cultivation in the world
* Rhubarb leaves contain the poisonous substance oxalate
* Rhubarb leaves can be used to make an organic pesticide for any leaf-eating insect
* Rhubarb is a natural laxative
* Thicker stalks and dark red colour are the ideal to look for when buying rhubarb
Here are two recipes for you to try:
• 3½ cups rhubarb (cut fine)
• 1 lemon, sliced fine
• 3½ cups sugar
• 150 ml white vinegar
• 20 cups of cold water
Mix and allow to stand in a bucket for 48 hours. Strain and bottle.
Do not try to keep for too long as it tends to become very gassy, and, as with ginger beer, you may bet some bottles exploding.
Breakfast Blintzes with Carmelized Rhubarb and Sour
11 Tablespoons Butter (1 3/4 sticks), plus more for pan
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup plus 2 1/4 Tablespoons sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 1/2 pounds trimmed rhubarb, cut into ½ inch length (about 5 cups)
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons Brandy
1/2 pint sour cream, or more if desired
1. Melt 2 Tablespoons butter; let cool.
2. Combine the flour, salt, 1/4 Tablespoon sugar, eggs, milk and 2 Tablespoons reserved melted, cooled butter in the bowl of a food processor, and process until smooth. Transfer to a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or overnight.
3. Fill a large bowl with ice and water; set aside. Melt remaining 9 Tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar over butter; Cook until sugar has dissolved and starts to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add rhubarb; cook, shaking pan vigorously to coat in caramelized sugar, until rhubarb is tender and just starting to fall apart, about 5 minutes. Add brandy to pan, shake pan, cook just until liquid comes to a boil, about 30 seconds; remove from heat. Transfer rhubarb to a small bowl; set into the ice bath to stop the cooking.
4. Heat a 10-inch nonstick saute pan over medium heat. Melt about a Tablespoon of butter in saute pan; Swirl to coat. If butter pools, gently wipe with a paper towel. Pour a scant 1/4 cup chilled batter into hot saute pan. Swirl pan to form a tin, even layer; Cook blintz until bottom is very lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Do not turn over. Loosen edge of blintz with a spatula; Slide out of pan onto a piece of waxed paper. Continue making blintzes until all batter is used (You may not need to add butter to pan each time); Place a piece of waxed paper between each one.
5. Transfer a blintz, cooked side up, onto a plate. Spoon a generous 1/4 cup of rhubarb filling (getting a nice amount of fruit to liquid) into center of blintz. Carefully fold up blintz, creating an envelope for filling; set aside, seam up, on a baking sheet. Continue filling and folding until all blintzes and filling ahve been used.
6. Melt just enough butter to lightly coat bottom of large saute pan (use same nonstick saute pan or a slightly larger saute pan if you wish, over medium-low heat). Arrange 2 or 3 filled blintzes at a time, depending on size of pan, in saute pan; cook until blintzes are golden and crisp on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Serve immediately with sour cream.