Rhubarb, The Vegetable

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Wait! What? Rhubarb is a vegetable? I thought rhubarb was only a fruit we grew in our garden for our neighbor Nancy who could not wait to snip the fleshy stalks and slip back across the alley before being noticed! Sneaky she thought she was, but, we were actually watching through the laundry room windows!

We have all noticed the white-green and pink-red flowers extending from large leaves and celery-like stalks. This savored and anticipated annual specialty is not only a perennial, it is NOT a fruit. The optimal period for harvesting rhubarb can be up to 10 years, but, the actual plant life expectancy may be up to 30 years. From my verbal census there is unfortunately not a gray area when it comes to loving the tartness, like that of sour apples; it is either agreeable or not with most.

Another neighbor in the vegetable garden (not Nancy), Iceberg Lettuce, has been put down for not possessing food value or nutrients. Iceberg does contain nutrients, but, it just simply does not contain as many nutrients as other lettuces and vegetables. TAKE NOTICE, rhubarb’s nutrient portfolio is impressive! According to Alternative Healing, rhubarb is plentiful in useful acids such as: malic, niacin, pantothenic, folate; and minerals such as: calcium, magnesium, manganese; and, also polyphenols and vitamins such as vitamins C and B. Marco Polo was responsible for bringing rhubarb in to Europe and for thousands of years the Chinese have used it for its medicinal properties.

I have watched programs and read about how to select the best watermelon, honey dew and cantaloupe, but, how do we pick the best rhubarb?

Rule of thumb is that you want a crunchy plant with firm stalks that look and feel fresh. Peak season is from April to June and storage for the freshest rhubarb is in the refrigerator for up to a week. Pink stalks of rhubarb are most common with consumers; color depends on the type and area of cultivation.

When cooking with rhubarb only the stalks should be used due the toxicity in the leaves. I have known the stalks to be used to create stewed rhubarb, desserts like crumb bars, pies and cakes, compotes, jams and marmalade, sauces, soups, and in salads. The tart behavior of rhubarb can be tamed with extra sweetener or complemented with strawberries for less of a pucker.

Rhubarb, stated in Alternative Healing, is not a demanding plant and is resistant to low temperatures during the winter. Starting in the fall, this vegetable loses leaves and enters its stage of sleep. Ideal temperatures for cultivation are 20-25 degrees Celsius; it does not require a sunny spot and is best placed to the border areas of a garden. Only after two years can you pick two to three stems and regular harvest only on plants that are three or more years of age. I am aware of this with ordinary flowers such as Petunias, but, reading about rhubarb cultivation I have learned that the flowering plant does consume resources and slows the development of new leaves. To inhibit this, the flower should be removed as soon as a bud develops.

I am not certain as to what concoction our neighbor Nancy conjured up for her pick of the rhubarb, but, my boss liked the idea of this compote.

Rhubarb Compote


  • 1 pound rhubarb stalks, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4-inch knob ginger, finely grated
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ vanilla bean, scraped
  • Juice from ½ an orange
  • Splash of water (about 1 tablespoon)


  1. To a medium pot, set over medium-low heat, add the rhubarb, ginger, sugar, vanilla bean, juice from ½ an orange and splash of water. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. The rhubarb stalks should soften slightly and will release some juices.
  2. Turn the heat to medium and cook for an additional 15 minutes, stirring often to avoid the mixture from scorching the bottom of the pot, until the rhubarb has softened.
  3. Using the back of a spatula, smash the rhubarb until it resembles a puree mixture. Give it a taste (be careful, it’ll be hot) and adjust any of the flavorings to your liking.
  4. Turn the heat off and allow compote to cool to room temperature.
  5. Transfer to a ramekin or a few jars and keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.

I took to this recipe for Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumb Bars. In one review (could be personal preference) the comment was the recipe was not sweet enough and when made the next time more sweetener would be added. Another review was it needed left in the oven longer (could be the difference in the ovens).

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumb Bars


Base and crumble topping:

  • 8 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt


Fruit mixture:

  • 2 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 1 ½ cups chopped strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons sugar


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line an 8 x 8-inch square pan with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, blend the base ingredients together with your fingers until the butter is no longer visible and the mixture is loose and crumbly. Transfer about ¾ of the mixture to the prepared pan. Use a measuring cup to press the mixture into an even layer on the bottom of the pan.

In another medium bowl, stir the rhubarb, strawberry, lemon juice, cornstarch and sugar together. Pour into the pan. Crumble the remaining base mixture on top of the fruit.


Bake in the oven until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes before slicing into 9 pieces.

Tip: Lining the pan with parchment paper helps with removing the bars after baking.

Courtesy given to: Alternative Healing; Fresh Tastes at PBS Food;; and, Tom Hodson.