June 10th is National Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Day, a vegetable harvested in April and May in the northern hemisphere (the southern hemisphere harvest is in October and November, apple and pumpkin pie season for those on the other side of the Equator).
Yes, rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit. The giveaway might be that it looks like red celery stalks with cabbage-like leafy tops—although the two vegetables are actually not related. Some varieties of rhubarb have dark green stalks.
By the time it gets to market, the leaves of the rhubarb are usually cut off, and we only see the red stalks.
The leaves are removed because rhubarb leaves contain toxic substances that can poison humans—and cats, dogs, horses, rabbits. Don’t try to repurpose them; the only place for them is the compost heap.
Native to Asia, rhubarb has long been used in Chinese medicine. As anyone knows who has cooked rhubarb, it needs copious amounts of sugar to offset its natural bitterness. Thus, it can be served as a vegetable, but its use as a sweet food didn’t come into play until sugar became widely available in the 17th century.
Rhubarb—it’s pretty, and after you add lots of sugar, it’s tasty and sweet. Photo courtesy of OurOhio.com.
But since then, what a lovely choice for food enthusiasts. Stewed rhubarb is a delight, as is a rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pie or crumble, rhubarb ice cream, jams and marmalades. In generations past, rhubarb ketchup was a popular condiment.
As a savory, rhubarb can be made into salsa, sauces for chicken and pork, and join beets in a green salad. Check out these recipes.
The reason you don’t see more stewed rhubarb or pie is that it’s relatively laborious to work with the vegetable. It’s fibrous, so after you cook it, you need to process it through a food mill.
We learned the joys of cooking rhubarb from our Nana, who made copious amounts of rhubarb throughout rhubarb season; and we assure you, it’s worth it.
FRUIT OR VEGETABLE?
How can you tell the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?
Fruits carry their seeds on the inside—think apples, bananas, melons, pears, and plums. The only exception is the strawberry, which carries its seeds on the outside.
By the same token, the following “vegetables” are botanically fruits; we just think of them as vegetables because they are not sweet: avocados, eggplants, olives, squash, tomatoes and zucchini.
Avocados and olives are tree fruits, just like apples and oranges.