Monday, May 25, 2009

Newspaper Column - RHUBARB CHUTNEY

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 25 May 2009

You know it’s a late spring when, by the end of May, there’s not enough rhubarb for a pie. This would have caused consternation for many rural families in the early days of farming, when rhubarb represented the end of winter and the first fresh food from the garden. It was the first “fruit” of the season at a time when grocery stores didn’t carry abundant produce from around the world. Rhubarb was so popular for pies that it earned the nickname the Pie Plant.
Of course, rhubarb is not really a fruit. It’s from the same plant family is sorrel and buckwheat, but its distinctive tart flavour lends itself to pies, cobblers, jams, beverages, chutneys and stews.

It’s high in fibre and a source of vitamin C and potassium, a natural laxative, thought to lower cholesterol and control weight gain, according to modern research. The marvellous thing about rhubarb is that it’s a perennial vegetable that loves a cold winter and comes up the next spring with no assistance whatsoever. No wonder it was found on just about every Saskatchewan farm and many city lots, too.

However, for most of its history, rhubarb was not considered a food. In China, where it originates, the rhubarb root was used for medicinal purposes, a practice which brought it to Europe. The ancient Romans coined the word rhubarb from Rha, their name for the Volga River, and barb, short for barbarian. In other words, it came from the barbarians up north. It wasn’t until the 1800s in England, when sugar because inexpensive and plentiful, that the love affair with rhubarb pie began.

Dr. John Bury of Saskatoon grew up in England where rhubarb pie was a family favourite. His youth also coincided with a time when rhubarb was still used for medicinal purposes. His father was the “analyst” or, in modern terms, the toxicologist at the London Hospital, where Bury took his medical training in the 1940s and 50s.

He still has his father’s copy of the hospital’s Pharmacopoeia, published in 1934, a book full of medicinal recipes with Latin names such as Mistura Gentianae cum Rheo, a mixture of gentian, rhubarb, ginger, sodium bicarbonate and peppermint water—a sedative prescribed for “nervous problems”—and Mistura Aperiens pro Infantibus, a laxative for children containing a tincture of rhubarb.

According to the Pharmacopoeia, the hospital pharmacy stocked rhubarb as a pill, powder and tincture (in solution with alcohol). Today, health food stores continue to stock rhubarb pills as a dietary supplement.

I prefer my rhubarb in pies, not pills, and my favourite recipes are not from a Pharmacopoeia but from a cookbook, Rhubarb: More than Just Pies, by Sandi Vitt and Michael Hickman, published by the University of Alberta Press. It’s full of rhubarb advice such as, when picking rhubarb, always pull out the stocks rather than cut them, and give the plant a good watering once a week or so.

I intend to make a pie as soon as there is enough rhubarb to fill the pastry, but I also want to branch out this year and try rhubarb in unconventional ways such as their recipes for rhubarb curry, rhubarb soup and this rhubarb chutney which I made a few days ago, halving the recipe because, well, that’s all the rhubarb I could muster. Click here for more rhubarb recipes.

Rhubarb Chutney
4 cups rhubarb
2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1/4 cup black currents (I used raisins)
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups white-wine vinegar

Cut the rhubarb into 1/4-inch (6 mm) pieces. Seed and remove veins from jalapeno; chop jalapeno and garlic finely. Place all ingredients in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until rhubarb breaks down and mixture is the texture of jam, about 45 min. Keeps for several months in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

1 comment:

JJ Moneysauce said...

If you're interested you should try making some rhubarb rasam.

Rasam is a south indian hot and sour consomme type soup, and it is delicious.