ontario rhubarb

What's Fresh, Toronto? Rhubarb!

OK, so Rhubarb isn't all that fresh. I don't mean in terms of quality, but when this winter hardy plant is forced or grown in a hothouse it's one of those spring gems you can start getting as early as February. Since farmed rhubarb peaks around June, now is the time to get out and get some.

The rhubarb we're familiar with are the edible stalks of Rheum rhabarbarum and a few other species from the Polygonaceae family, which also includes buckwheat and sorrel.

Wild rhubarb is native to Asia. Today it is cultivated most heavily in North American and Northern Europe, but eaten all over the world. Historically rhubarb was used for medicinal purposes, and it wasn't until the more widespread availability of sugar that it became popular in home cooking (but don't eat the leaves, they are poisonous!).

Rhubarb has a consistency similar to other stalk vegetables (like celery) but is tougher, which is why it is most often cooked. It has a great tartness that people have come to know and love in the classic favourites like strawberry rhubarb pies and jams.

Though technically a vegetable, rhubarb is often categorized and thought of as a fruit, because it is most often eaten that way. Beside the pies and jams, the possibilities for enjoying rhubarb are pretty much endless. You can use it in almost any other sweet application in which you'd use fruit: clafoutis, turnovers, crumbles, cobblers, bread pudding, coffee cakes, muffins, coulis, compotes, tarts, sorbets, and frozen yogurts (to name but a few of the most popular applications). And it pairs to well with so many flavours: strawberry, cherry, apple, pineapple, ginger, sour cream and so much more.

Rhubarb can also be used in a variety of savoury preparations. It's often used to make savoury sauces for pork or mackerel. In Norway it's used with potatoes and aromatics in soup. In Iran and Afghanistan it's used in khoresht (stew). In Italy they use rhubarb to make an aperitif called rabarbaro that has a low alcoholic content and thought of as a health drink.

So much versatility coming from these tough red stalks! For me, I go the traditional route. I pick rhubarb up in peak season, freeze it till October then make jams to give away at Christmas, plus compotes, pies and crumbles to enjoy during the fall.

You can get rhubarb at virtually every farmers' market in the city, so get out there and get it now!

As the growing season continues, I'll be keeping track of what is becoming available each step of the way, and will share my findings in this here farm fresh feature "What's Fresh, Toronto?" Stay tuned for future installments.

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