Rhubarb – spring’s first “tart” vegetable

Rhubarb is spring’s earliest and oldest perennial vegetable.

Although the calendar says spring, the weather outside does not feel like it. Yet, spring’s earliest and oldest perennial “vegetable” is already poking its head out of the ground. Rhubarb botanically is a vegetable from the Polygonaceae family and is a close cousin to sorrel and buckwheat.

The only edible parts of rhubarb are the stem and the root. For centuries the dried root was used for its healing properties. The leaves are toxic because they contain oxalic acid.

Rhubarb is high in vitamins A and C, calcium and fiber. It is also low in calories, with only 26 calories per raw cup. It is when sugar is added that the calories go up. Because of its tartness, rhubarb is usually paired with either raspberries or strawberries.

The harvesting of rhubarb takes place when the stems are young and tender. Trim off any damaged spots and the leaves. The stalks can be kept unwashed and wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. The time to harvest rhubarb is from April to the end of June.

Michigan State University Extension recommends you wash your hands before and after handling produce.

Rhubarb can be frozen or canned to preserve.

For canning rhubarb, select young, tender, well-colored stalks. Remove and discard the leaves. Wash the stalks and cut them into one-half to one-inch pieces. In a saucepan combine one quart of rhubarb and one-half cup of sugar, let it stand until the juice starts to appear. Heat the mixture gently until it starts to boil. Immediately pack the rhubarb mixture into hot jars. Be sure to leave one-half inch head space. Remove the air bubbles. Wipe the jar rim. Adjust the two-piece lids and process in a boiling water bath technique.

If you live up to 1,000 feet above sea level, process the jars for 15 minutes in the boiling water bath technique. If you live above 1,001-6,000 feet above sea level, the processing time is 20 minutes.

After processing, remove the jars of rhubarb from the canner and allow them to cool undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours. Then remove the rings, check to be sure that the lids have sealed. Wash and dry the jars. Label the jars and store them in a cool, dry place.

To freeze rhubarb, select young tender, well-colored stalks. Remove and discard the leaves. Wash, trim and cut the stalks into pieces that are needed for your favorite recipes. Rhubarb may be frozen raw or blanched.

Blanching requires that there be a pot of boiling water to put the rhubarb into for one minute. After one minute the rhubarb is plunged into ice water to stop the cooking action. The blanching process will help retain the color and the flavor of the rhubarb.

Rhubarb can be frozen in either a dry pack or a syrup pack. A dry pack means the rhubarb is packed into a container without sugar leaving one-inch head space.

For a 40 percent or heavy syrup pack, dissolve 2 3/4 cups of sugar in four cups of water. Cool the syrup. Pack the rhubarb into a container. Pour the cooled syrup over the packed rhubarb. Be sure to leave one-half inch of head space in a pint container and one-inch head space in a quart container. Seal and label the containers. Then freeze.

For the best quality preserve only enough rhubarb for your family to use in one year.

By preserving this tart “vegetable,” rhubarb can be enjoyed all year.

For further information contact your local MSU Extension office or download the Michigan Fresh rhubarb bulletin.

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