KIMBERLY • If rhubarb were your friend she would be the one who could mingle with anyone at the party, making small talk and winning over strangers. Her skinny frame fitted in a carmine dress. Her huge hair overpowering her slim stalk.
Then again, there would be those who wouldn’t like her, saying she left a tart taste in their mouths.
Joan Sargent knows rhubarb’s character all too well and has embraced this friend in her kitchen for more than 15 years. Rhubarb is often her dinner date to church potlucks and has won over many who were willing to give this tangy vegetable a second chance.
Sargent describes rhubarb’s personality as “fun” because it is so versatile and you can put it in anything — she has more than 100 recipes to prove it.
The Kimberly woman compiled a cookbook to show off the many uses of rhubarb, and she often gives this cookbook — “Rhubarb Recipe Roundup” — to friends or donates it to her church for fundraising.
Sargent has three large rhubarb plants growing in her flower beds. If you didn’t know what rhubarb looked like, you might pass by and assume it was a gigantic spinach plant because the red stalks are hidden underneath huge leaves.
But before rhubarb grew in Sargent’s soil or any dirt in North America, it was found in China in 2700 BC, according to the University of Illinois.
Rhubarb was initially grown for medicinal uses and given to people to cleanse their bodies. The Rhubarb Compendium and other websites say the Chinese rhubarb was used as a medicine in Europe and wasn’t employed as a food there until 1778. The plant’s appearance on American tables occurred between 1790 and 1800.
Nowadays rhubarb shows up in many places: It can be made into juices, punches, breads, cakes, cookies, cobblers, sauces, jams and pies and even served on meat.
“I’m a real fan of rhubarb,” Sargent said.
One of Sargent’s favorite recipes is a frozen rhubarb jam made with raspberry gelatin. The jam can also be made with orange or strawberry gelatin, but she prefers raspberry. Sargent’s husband was not a big fan of her rhubarb-inspired dishes at first, but the frozen rhubarb jam has become his favorite, as well. She said he told her: “The world supply of rhubarb should be in that jam.”
Sargent also makes a sweet and sour sauce that is tasty over chicken or pork.
Rhubarb is a vegetable that prefers a cool season and wilts on a hot day. But it can be easily stored in your freezer so you can enjoy it all summer long.
“I freeze what rhubarb we do not eat fresh so I can whip up a rhubarb pie in the middle of winter,” said Carol Robertson of Twin Falls.
Robertson said her family loves a good, old-fashioned rhubarb pie with only subtle twists, such as some orange zest in the filling to make it sparkle.
“If I feel really wild I throw in a cup or so of sliced fresh strawberries to provide a little surprise,” she said.
Rhubarb can be frozen in sauces. Or do as Sargent does and wash, cut and freeze the raw vegetable stalks on a cookie sheet. Then place the frozen pieces in a plastic bag to store in the freezer.
When harvesting rhubarb, trim the leaves from the stalk immediately and do not ingest the leaves. Eating a large quantity of the leaves has been known to cause sickness and even death.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant that is very winter-hardy and resistant to drought. Once your plant becomes established you will need to divide it every four to five years, which will keep the stalks thick and the plant healthy.
“It’s a very beautiful plant,” said Mary Lou Panatopoulos of Twin Falls. Rather than cutting off the stalk, Panatopoulos twists it off — on the theory that this does not open up the plant to fungus or anything else that could disease it. She said it’s an easy plant to grow.
“You can mix it with other berries. It’s very tart and it gives things a snappy taste,” Panatopoulos said. She enjoys making rhubarb-raspberry crisp and rhubarb cream pie. “You usually use quite a bit of sugar in the recipe because of the tartness.”
Pat Ballard of Kimberly likes her rhubarb sweet and sweet. Neighbors often give her rhubarb during the spring. She makes stewed rhubarb — which is like a pudding — of sugar and rhubarb and not much else. She also makes a rhubarb cake that she found in a cookbook.
Yes, rhubarb is an acquired taste. While some like it sweet others prefer its almost barbed flavor.
So the next time you are invited to a dinner or lunch or host your own, make sure to bring rhubarb along. She always makes an impression and is sure to win over some of your friends with her snappy personality.
Frozen Rhubarb Jam
From Joan Sargent’s “Rhubarb Recipe Roundup.”
5 cups rhubarb, cut into small pieces
3 cups sugar
1 3-ounce package of raspberry gelatin
Mix sugar and rhubarb; let stand to allow the mixture to become juicier. Cook 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in gelatin. Pour into containers and freeze.
Variations: Use orange or strawberry gelatins instead of raspberry.
Sweet and Sour Sauce
Use this as a meat topping. Yield:1 1/2 cups of sauce or about 8 servings. From Joan Sargent’s “Rhubarb Recipe Roundup.”
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb
1/2 cup canned or fresh chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
In a medium saucepan, cook onion in butter about seven minutes until onion is browned. Stir in remaining ingredients except lemon juice. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
Serve hot with chicken, pork or other meats.
Recipe courtesy of Carol Robertson.
For the cake:
2 cups flour
2 cups fresh rhubarb, diced
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts (Robertson prefers walnuts)
For the caramel frosting:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup skim milk
2 cups powdered sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan.
Beat all cake ingredients for about 1 minute slowly. Scrape sides of bowl, then beat 2 minutes a little faster. Scrape sides, stir and pour into pan.
Bake 45-50 minutes until toothpick comes out dry.
For the frosting, melt butter in saucepan, stir in brown sugar and bring to a boil while stirring. Reduce heat to low and boil and stir for 2-3 minutes.
Stir in milk and heat to boiling again. Cool to lukewarm. Stir in powdered sugar and put pan in ice water and beat by hand until smooth enough to spread a thin layer.
When cake has cooled, put on a thin layer of caramel frosting. This recipe makes enough frosting for two cakes; you can freeze half of it for the next spice cake.
Variation:For a change, Robertson recommends substituting zucchini for the rhubarb and says it’s just as good.