Of the several hundred thousand heirloom vegetable varieties throughout the world, only a handful qualify as all-time greats, with qualities so universally sought after that they’re prized by gardeners everywhere. Ranking high on this list is ‘Victoria’ rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). This variety has established the gold standard by which to judge good rhubarb: large, fat stems, bright red skin, lack of stringiness, and a tart, apple-gooseberry flavor with a hint of lemon or grapefruit (depending on your soil). Used in everything from jams and fruit tarts to soups and sauces (even ice cream), rhubarb is probably one of the most adaptable garden crops you can grow. And because it’s a perennial, it will yield years of copious harvests with little trouble and few pests.
Although rhubarb is technically a vegetable, Americans tend to treat it as a fruit, because our view of the plant has been shaped by the sweet and sour desserts of English origin. But beyond England, rhubarb is used in a wide range of dishes. As an example of the sort of creative dishes that pair rhubarb with meat (yes, meat!), see the Iranian recipe below. It’s a delightful dish combining lamb and rhubarb for a delicious stew that can be served over rice or pasta.
Victoria, Queen of the Kitchen Garden
‘Victoria’ has not been improved upon since its creation almost 175 years ago — a testament to its superiority. The creator of this famous heirloom rhubarb was Joseph Myatt of Manor Farm in Deptford, England, a plant breeder who also created a slew of good strawberries, potatoes, peas and more. Myatt’s ‘Victoria’ rhubarb was introduced in 1837 in honor of Queen Victoria, and in many ways, his rhubarb came to symbolize the dessert cookery of her reign: rhubarb charlottes, rhubarb fools (similar to a parfait), rhubarb compotes, rhubarb tarts, even rhubarb wine — none of which would have assumed their place in Victorian cookbooks had there been no ‘Victoria’ to cook with. Horticulturists have often claimed it was ‘Victoria’ that mainstreamed rhubarb cookery in both England and the United States.
Two physical characteristics of ‘Victoria’ that made it stand out from other varieties were its bright red color and large stems. Older heirloom varieties tended to be mostly green or, like ‘Early Champagne,’ completely green in stem color. Cooks of this period in rhubarb history were familiar with the yellow-stemmed ‘Pineapple’ rhubarb, but yellow rhubarbs often lacked good flavor.
Rhubarb is usually grown from dormant rootstocks in spring or from potted plants. Plant the rootstocks at least 3 to 4 feet apart after your area’s last frost. The stems and leaves of ‘Victoria’ are large — some as long as 4 feet — so you’ll need to give the plants plenty of room. When harvesting, gently pull the stem from the crown area of the root so you remove the stem’s base. Cutting off the stems with a knife leaves a stump to rot and perhaps introduce damaging insects to the plant. By pulling off the entire stem, you’ll actually create a spot for more leaves to form, so you can maintain production throughout summer.
Rhubarb blooms in late May and early June, or well into the summer with some varieties. It is common practice for gardeners to cut off the flower stalks as soon as they form so the rhubarb crop will linger longer into the summer. ‘Victoria’ will produce all season and right up to frost if you keep it cropped and water it during dry weather. Mulching with straw helps during the summer months, or simply choose a semishaded plot — rhubarb is one of the few crops that doesn’t mind a little shade.
The color and size of ‘Victoria’ depend on a number of factors, especially rainfall, particularly in the spring when rhubarb is at its best. Rich soil well-endowed with rotten manure or compost will give rhubarb a boost in early growth, which in turn will intensify the red color and produce long, succulent stems.
As with all rhubarb, stem size will vary with ‘Victoria.’ This variety has been grown for so long that it has evolved into a number of subtypes. While soil fertility will induce heavy growth of the stems, the quality of your initial plants is what counts most. So purchase your ‘Victoria’ plants from a trusted company — that’s what will determine whether you end up with spindly rhubarb or fat, succulent harvests.
Note that rhubarb leaves cannot be eaten because they contain oxalic acid. The acid also is found in the edible stems, but it breaks down in the cooking process. The concentration in the leaves is high enough that they’re unsafe to eat, even cooked.
When you get the hang of cooking with rhubarb, start thinking of the plant as an alternative to lemon juice, then try experimenting with combinations of meat and rhubarb, such as rhubarb and duck, or even rhubarb and fish (herring, for example). A little creativity in the kitchen will open your eyes to rhubarb’s true potential — it’s not just for pies! Furthermore, rhubarb can be easily chopped and frozen, so you can enjoy it all winter. Visit Eat in Season: Rhubarb for more on this fruity vegetable, plus five more mouthwatering recipes.
Persian Lamb With Rhubarb
The stock of this dish is also excellent as the basic stock for spring pea soup, so consider making a large batch and freezing it. Because the stock takes much longer to cook than the lamb, it’s best to make the stock the day before and refrigerate until needed. Serve this delectable dish over rice or pasta.
Step 1: Lamb Stock
2 quarts water
1 pound meaty lamb bones
4 small (1-inch) pieces of fresh ginger root, cut in half lengthwise
Half of 1 onion
1 tbsp coriander seeds
4 garlic cloves, sliced in half lengthwise
1 slice of lemon or citron, or 6 citron leaves
Combine all the ingredients in a stewing pan and cook in a steady simmer for 40 minutes, then bring to a steady boil over medium-high heat until reduced to 1 quart. Strain through a chinoise or fine sieve and set aside.
Step 2: Prepare the Lamb
5 tbsp unsalted butter
2 medium onions, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced paper thin
2 pounds lamb cut into bite-size pieces
1 1⁄2 tbsp flour (preferably rice flour)
1 1⁄2 tbsp ground coriander
1 quart prepared lamb stock (see Step 1)
1 cup parsley, chopped
4 tbsp mint, chopped
3 cups rhubarb, chopped, stringy parts removed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, toasted
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter until it foams, then add the onion. Cover and sweat 4 minutes over a medium heat, then remove the onion and set it aside. Dust the meat with the flour and cook in the same pan used for the onions until the meat begins to brown on both sides, then add the reserved cooked onion, coriander and stock. Simmer 50 to 60 minutes uncovered, or until the lamb is tender and the stock has thickened.
Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan with the parsley, mint and rhubarb. Cover and sweat 4 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender but not falling apart. Add to the stew and adjust seasonings. Serve immediately over rice or angel-hair pasta, and garnish with the pistachios. Serves 4 to 6.
You can buy rhubarb plants from these nurseries:
(Will begin taking orders for ‘Victoria’ in February 2011.)
Cloud Mountain Farm and Nursery