Rhubarb is one of those vegetables that can cause heated discussions because people either love it a lot or hate it profoundly. It is healthy but also dangerous.
It is a plant, a rather resistant plant, that can grow for many years. Usually it is seen as a vegetable but in the United States it is classified as a fruit, but that was more for tax reasons than based on any agronomic grounds.
As a plant, you get long red (or green, depending on the sort) stalks with large dark green crumpled leaves. You would use the stalks in cooking.
Cut it off well below the leaves as that is were the highest concentration of the rhubarb’s poison is – oxalic acid which can destroy chalk, or at least prevent the absorption by the body of chalk from diary products, or indeed cause death if the intake is high enough.
However, rhubarb is also full of good elements and has laxative and weight loss effects while the roots are used in Chinese medicine.
So, as with wine, enjoy with moderation.
Personally, I am not very fond of rhubarb because of its sour taste and it somehow is evocative of unpleasant youth memories (and I do not have many of them). My wife, however, loves it a lot and I gladly cook it for her.
We were at a vegetable farm near Jouy-en-Josas in the wider Paris area, at Viltain to be precise, where we could pluck our own vegetables, and we bought a big bunch of rhubarb leaves. At home, I cut the tops and bottoms from the stalks and skinned them with a sharp knife. The one I use is called a ‘couteau à tourner’ which you use to ‘turn’ artichokes. However, it seems not to be called a turning knife in English but a ‘bird’s beak knife’.
Anyway, It is good to remove any remaining stringy fibres. The older the stalks, the more fibres it has so it is best to prepare your dishes with the freshest possible stalks. Ours were not even a day old, so they came off very easily. I sliced the stalks in bits of 0.5 cm (or thereabouts, I did not use a ruler) and ended up with a kilo’s worth of rhubarb. After cooking, I let it cool and my wife ate a part the following day – in fact, she had already ‘cleaned’ the spoons and the bowl I had used – and found it delicious.
I have heard and read about people putting chalk or even a white soft chalk in the rhubarb to counter the oxalic acid. This does not improve the taste, on the contrary.
The compote can be used as a dessert or breakfast side dish, as a filling for a tart, as a spread on bread or as part of a more extensive fruit dessert with strawberries, raspberries, lemon, cinnamon, mint, some powdered sugar…
- 1.5 kilos of rhubarb stalks
- 125 grammes of fine sugar
- 1 decilitre of water
- 1 sachet of Agar Agar (an algae-based thickening agent)
- Peel the stalks, remove any strings and slice in small parts. (Some people do not peel the stalks to keep more of the colour. But then you may end up with a stringy end-product, as if there were hairs in your compote. Now that is an experience I rather avoid)
- Put one decilitre of water in a pan, add the sugar and stir while heating the water until the sugar is dissolved. Continue heating and stirring until some air bubbles start to come up from the bottom of the pan.
- Add the rhubarb and continue stirring slowly for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on whether you want a chunky or smooth compote (You do not have to stir continuously but regularly).
- Take from the heat, add the Agar Agar, stir well and let it cool down (First off the heat, and when at room temperature you can put in the fridge).
You can put it in separate jars or containers before the cooling down period as the tepid rhubarb mass pours easier than the set paste.