A sweetheart with a sourpuss

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Although domesticated rhubarb is nicknamed "pie plant," Juneau cooks have found it cooks up well in all sorts of dishes.

Rhubarb has been thriving around town this summer, sending out leaves the diameter of car tires and stalks that could double as cheerleaders' batons. As a result, both the Master Gardeners and the Juneau Garden Club held rhubarb potlucks in June to share and show off culinary favorites.

"Almost everybody grows it," said master gardener Susanne Williams of Douglas. "At our potluck, we had some interesting dishes plus the usual sweet stuff." Williams recalled rhubarb jams, rhubarb dips, rhubarb crunches and rhubarb sauces to dollop over vanilla ice cream, as well as a rhubarb chutney by Linda Hoven. Jerry Hauf shared copies of rhubarb wine and liqueur recipes from an Angoon cookbook.

Master gardener Betty Marriott contributed a rhubarb crisp to the potluck. Marriott was raised as a city kid in Seattle and did not have a garden. "I began eating rhubarb when I moved to Juneau hundreds of years ago," she said with a chuckle. "I have two large plants now, and I have made rhubarb cake, rhubarb pie, and rhubarb jam and jelly. I think rhubarb is delicious."

Caroll Douglas made a rhubarb jam thickened with Jell-O. She served it as an appetizer with slices of baguette.

Williams herself whipped up three dishes from "Rhubarb Renaissance," a 1978 cookbook by Ann Saling of Seattle. The dishes were a halibut main dish, a rice side dish with rhubarb, garlic, almonds and cheese and a triple bean bake. The bean dish is essentially three kinds of canned beans seasoned with bacon, green pepper, catsup and 1 1/2 cups sliced rhubarb. It is quickly becoming a family favorite.


"I will probably make the halibut again," she said. "It looks strange because it has this green sauce," and people are hesitant to dig in. "But when they ate it, they raved about it. The Master Gardeners ate every bite."

Halibut Hullabaloo

2 pounds halibut

1 cup unsweetened rhubarb puree

1 chicken bouillon cube

1 1/4 cups water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon tarragon or cilantro

1/2 cup chopped mushrooms

1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients except halibut and last one. Simmer until thick. Lay fish in shallow, greased baking pan. Pour heated sauce over top. Bake 20 minutes. Baste a few times during cooking. Sprinkle cooked fish with cilantro or parsley and serve. Serves 6.

Linda Hoven developed this tangy chutney as "a combination of a bunch of different recipes." Hoven recommends it with meat or game. Chutney is traditionally a sweet-and-sour condiment or relish served with curried dishes. In India, where it originated, the base of chutney is often mango. Here, rhubarb takes the place of that tropical fruit.

Rhubarb Chutney

6 to 7 cups rhubarb, stalks washed and trimmed, then chopped in half-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups coarsely diced onion

1 1/2 cups raisins

1 1/2 cups sugar (granulated or brown)

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons fresh minced gingerroot, or more to taste

grated peel and juice of a lemon

1 tablespoon pickling (non-iodized) salt

1 tablespoons mustard seed

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground coriander

red pepper flakes or chopped jalapeno peppers to taste

cinnamon or ground cloves to taste


Mix all ingredients in large pot. Bring to a boil. Simmer and stir for about half an hour. Add 2 cups cider vinegar. Cook over medium heat until thick, another 20 to 30 minutes. Keep stirring or it sticks on the bottom, Hoven said. Jar according to manufacturer's directions. She also freezes it.

Makes about 4 pints.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) is a member of the buckwheat family. It is thought to have originated in China or Siberia. In northern climes where apples don't thrive, rhubarb stalks are stewed into "sauce" and served as a tangy side dish in the same way applesauce or pineapple is served with ham or pork.

Some fans enjoy nibbling on the raw stalks; others won't touch the stuff with a 10-foot-spoon. The leaves and roots are poisonous. Rhubarb plants are fond of chicken manure, but otherwise require little attention.

Some people consider rhubarb an aphrodisiac. One Internet site invites "potential seducers" to visit its site, "Seduce with Rhubarb." (See our Web page for the address.)

Others consider rhubarb an aid to good digestion and even a road to the "Ubermensch," or superman, a superior human being regarded as the goal of evolution.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined the term. Nietzsche believed his countrymen were childlike and lumpish in their thinking because they dined on dumplings. (He similarly condemned the "cannibalistic" English for their diet of roast beef). He claimed that a "warrior's diet" included grapes, fat-free cocoa, low-salt salami and rhubarb.

"Now I know how to refute Germans; not with arguments, but with rhubarb," Nietzsche wrote.

Rhubarb contains Vitamin C, potassium and fiber. It was first recorded in Italy in 1608, made its way to Germany and Great Britain and later to the United States and Canada. In 1947, it was legally made a fruit, although botanically it is a vegetable.

The laxative effects of its Chinese ancestor have been bred out of the rhubarb grown in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Chinese rhubarb (Da Huang, or Rheum palmatum) was traditionally used in medicine to treat everything from traumatic injury to minor eye infections, from fever, to delirium, burns, ulcers and inflammation of the bile duct. It is enjoying a comeback today among those looking to herbal medicines for cures they cannot find in science.

Rhubarb is as popular in Canada as it is in Alaska and the Northeast. This recipe comes from food writer Jehane Benoit's 1963 edition of "L'Encyclopedie de la Cuisine Canadienne." She calls this dish "pink pie of spring."

Tarte Rose Du Printemps

1 cup sugar

grated peel of one orange

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons tapioca beads or farina

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups rhubarb, diced

1 tablespoon orange or lemon juice

2 tablespoons butter, melted

pastry for nine-inch, two-crust pie

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Line pie plate with half the pastry. Mix together all remaining ingredients. Pour mixture into pie shell. Cover with rest of pastry. Crimp edges of crust and make steam exits. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

When gathering rhubarb from the garden, pick the biggest stalks on the plant. Do not harvest it from plants the first year they are planted. Never remove all the stalks from any one plant. Mature stalks can be gently twisted and will separate neatly from the base of the plant with a pop; don't use a knife to cut them.

Rhubarb chosen at the grocery store should be used soon after purchasing.

This recipe comes from Terhune Orchards in Princeton, N.J. The orchard grows both apples and rhubarb and has some you-pick areas available to the public. Slump is a New England culinary term for a fruit dessert topped with a biscuit-like or sweet dumpling mixture. It's similar to pie, but easier to make because it does not involve crust. On Cape Cod, slumps are called "grunts" because they tend to sigh and wheeze as they bake, producing sounds something like the volcanic mud pots at Yellowstone.

Apple Rhubarb Slump


4 medium apples

2 cups rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 2-quart baking dish. Peel, core, and slice apples into 1/2-inch pieces. Place apples in a saucepan and add the rhubarb, 3/4 sugar and spices. Cover pan and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice until apple slices are soft but not falling apart.

In medium bowl, sift flour and baking powder. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and then cut in butter until mixture resembles crumbs. Stir milk and vanilla extract into the crumb mixture until just blended. Do not overmix. Pour hot fruit mixture into greased baking dish. Spoon dough mixture in dollops over the top. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until topping is golden. Serve warm with heavy cream or ice cream.

8 to 10 servings

Want more? The Cooperative Extension Service at 3032 Vintage Park, Suite 104, has free flyers of rhubarb recipes.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com

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