Vegetable of the Month
Vegetable. What does that word conjure in your mind? Do you think about the wilted lettuce on your cheeseburger? Maybe the green beans you refused to eat as a child and have sworn off ever since? Do tomatoes make you dry heave in apprehensive horror? If this sounds familiar, you are not without company. For most of us raised in the fast food-scape that is modern America, our tastebuds cry for meals that are crispy, salty, sweet and fatty. We have an aversion to the raw and a tendency toward the highly processed. Telling people what to eat is big business, and we are constantly targeted with commercials and celebrity endorsements expounding the health benefits and delectability of the latest diet, protein bar or frozen TV dinner.
There is, however, no beet lobby, or wealthy lettuce interests pushing their nutritious leaves on us with advertising, the fight to grow and eat more plants will be an uphill one. It requires your participation, and it will not be easy.
Even though the odds are surmountable, I am confident in all of us. I truly believe once you experience the explosive sweetness of a carrot, the biting crispness of a fresh radish or the mood mellowing tenderness of a baked sweet potato, there will be no going back. My goal, come hell or high water, is for you to eat more vegetables! A lot more vegetables! Hopefully you will begin to find vegetables so versatile and delicious that they become a larger part of every meal, or in some instances the only part.
Consequently, for the inaugural voyage of this plant based journey I have picked an easy one: Rhubarb. Rhubarb is widely available here in SW Montana, one of the first edible cultivars to pop up after the cold subsides and can easily be made to taste like candy if you’re still apprehensive about consuming plants.
Rhubarb exists, culinarily speaking, in a bit of an identity crisis. Technically a “vegetable,” (which itself is a vague term meaning “anything that is not a fruit”) it was legally classified as a fruit after World War II, allowing importers to capitalize on lower trade tariffs. Rarely is rhubarb used in savory applications, on the contrary it has an abiding relationship with sweet berries, fruits and large amounts of sugar to balance the electrifying tartness of the bright stalks. We consume these ripened stalks but avoid the poisonous leaves. Rhubarb leaves contain significant amounts of oxalic acid and anthraquinone glycosides, both of which are violent laxatives if consumed in excess. So for your good and the good of everyone around you DO NOT INJEST THE LEAVES!
The contradictory nature of rhubarb is evident in its history as well. It was first cultivated as medicine in ancient China, being a cleansing agent for all manner of infection, flu or plague. One famous account describes a Chinese emperor being cured of a “severe illness” he was afflicted with after having “a joyful time with four beautiful women.”
The appetizing qualities of rhubarb have since outweighed the medicinal and over many generations of selective breeding we now have the plant as it appears today in all of it’s pungent glory throughout back yards and farmers markets every spring. As you will see in the following recipes this magical vegetable has a wide range of applications in the kitchen, all along the spectrum from savory to sweet. Use your imagination! Rhubarb cooked down with a bit of white wine and sugar is as delicious on a grilled pork chop as it is on ice cream or a nice piece of soft cheese. Or try juicing the raw stalks and substituting the bright and acidic liquid into any recipe that calls for lemon juice.
Plant rhubarb in soil that gets fed with a healthy amount of organic matter year after year. Starting from seed is best and will yield the heartiest plants, however these plants can take a tremendous amount of time to yield any significant harvest. Rhubarb is easily propagated from its roots so with careful separation the patch can be expanded and shared with neighbors year after year. Rhubarb and fruit trees are mutually beneficial: rhubarb suppresses grasses, and if let to blossom will attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Fallen leaves and fruit from trees, if left to rot, give the rhubarb added nutrients.
Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake
Nothing makes me feel like a child more than this cake. This is a crowd pleaser and makes a big casserole dish worth of sweet and tingly goodness. My Mom adapted this recipe and it works well with fresh or frozen rhubarb. Did I mention Rhubarb freezes exceptionally? The marshmallows add to the sticky goodness without the excess sugar.
1 3/4 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup butter or lard
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
8 cups chopped rhubarb
8 marshmallows, quartered
1/2 cup sugar
Mix rhubarb, marshmallows and sugar. Spread in bottom of greased 9x13 pan. To mix batter: sift flour with baking soda and salt. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until smooth. Add flour to butter/egg mixture intermittently with milk, then add the vanilla. Poor the batter over the rhubarb and bake at 350 degrees until the cake is a rich caramel color, about 50 minutes.
Kimchi is the Korean way of fermenting vegetables with garlic, ginger and chiles. In modern restaurants it is used as a verb more so than a noun. You can kimchi almost any edible plant. Rhubarb is especially suited for this application because of it’s acidity and ability to remain crisp. If you choose to try the long fermented version make sure your container is glass, no metals or plastics!
8 stalks sliced rhubarb
1 bundle green onions, sliced
2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
5 cloves garlic
3 serrano chiles
1 small knob of ginger, grated
1 teaspoon of honey
Juice of 1 orange
In a bowl, toss the rhubarb, scallions and salt until coated. Let this mixture sit at room temperature for 20 minutes or until the rhubarb starts to sweat.
Meanwhile puree the fish sauce, garlic, chiles, ginger, orange juice and honey in a food processor until smooth.
Now pack the puree and the Rhubarb mixture into a jar so that liquid rises to the top and screw the lid on very loosely so pressure will not build up. This will now be stable in your fridge for months and get more delicious every day! To speed up the fermentation process, keep the jar in a cool place, tasting a little bit every day for about one week depending on the temperature until a pleasant effervescence develops.