Thursday, April 28, 2011

Booze of the week: Drink your rhubarb, spiked or not!

Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand. – Mother Teresa

Photo: frangrit, Flickr ccl
Here's a list that may surprise you. Tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, beans, okra and peppers are not vegetables. Botanically speaking, they're fruit. And so is rhubarb. Most are easy to understand why. They grow from the blossom of the plant and contain its seeds.

Photo: iowa_spirit_walker, flickr ccl
But why rhubarb? We eat the stalks, not any borne fruit. There's nothing like the law to set things straight (or confusing, as it were) because that is where the definition was confirmed – not by botanists. 

Since rhubarb was used as a fruit in in the United States, a New York court ruled in 1947 that it WAS a fruit as far as regulations and taxes. So it was finished, done and over, and it legally is now a fruit—even though it's NOT…

In case you're not familiar with rhubarb, it's a herbaceous perennial plant from the buckwheat family. It develops large "umbrella" leaves on bright red stalks. Only the stalks are used in cooking. 

Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid and are toxic, so avoid ingestion. That means pets as well as humans. Large doses can cause convulsions and even coma.

There are several varieties of rhubarb that are hardy to our Zone 5 climate. The edible version of rhubarb is Rheum rhaponticum. It is one of the first vegetables harvested, usually in late April or May. The medicinal rhubarb plant is Rheum official. Many ornamental variants also exist and appear in garden flower borders. We have an ornamental in ours that has extremely serrated large leaves. Last year it was settling in, so this year it should perform well. We also have a small patch of rhaponticum tucked away in a corner for kitchen use.

Photo: smallritual, Flickr ccl
Rhubarb on the dinner table
In Nova Scotia it was "de rigeur" on old homesteads to have a patch of rhubarb growing somewhere on the property. Many of those same patches, even though many decades old, still flourish today. These patches of rhubarb were always put to good use. 

The bright red stalks were harvested and put into pies, stewed and served with meats, or even made into pickles, jellies and jams. Their tart taste was also combined with other fruits. A common combination even today is rhubarb with strawberries in a pie. It's really very good. There are many more ways to use rhubarb. Check here for a massive list of interesting rhubarb recipes:

Rhubarb Strawberry pie.
Photo: Vortech, Flickr ccl
Rhubarb medicinally
Rhubarb has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It has been written about in ancient Chinese, Arabic and medieval European publications. Rhubarb, if eaten in quantity, can be a mild laxative. It is astringent, has uses as a tonic and to treat indigestion. Even the roots are dried for later combination in many Chinese herbal remedies.

Rhubarb booz-ically
But what if you want to drink it? Making a liqueur or syrup are two wonderful ways to enjoy the taste of this early summer "fruit." You can capture the combination of tart and sweet that we so much appreciate when using rhubarb in cooking. So I offer you recipes for both. Fresh local rhubarb should start to appear in markets within weeks.

Refreshing rhubarb syrup with soda.
Photo: Duncan H, Flickr ccl
For the booze hounds:
Rhubarb liqueur
4 cups fresh, red rhubarb stocks (the redder the better)
1 tbsp lemon zest
2 cups vodka
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Wash and slice the rhubarb into 1/2" pieces. Place the rhubarb, zest and vodka in a container. Cover, refrigerate and allow to steep for 5 days.

After 5 days, strain the solids from the vodka. It will have a rosy tint. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and then remove from the heat. Allow the syrup to cool.

Add the syrup to the infused vodka and chill.

For the tea-totalers:
Rhubarb syrup
2 pound fresh rhubarb
3 cups water (or enough to cover the rhubarb in the pan)
2" piece of ginger, sliced
1-1/2 cups sugar, or 1 cup liquid honey

Wash the rhubarb and cut into 1/2" pieces. Place the rhubarb with the ginger and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the rhubarb starts to break down. Strain the mixture to remove the pulp.

Place the liquid back into the pan. Reheat on low and add in the sugar or honey. Stir until the sugar (or honey) is dissolved.

Remove from the heat, cool, and bottle.

To make a refreshing summer drink, combine the syrup and soda in a glass with ice. The ratio for mixing is 1 part syrup: 4 parts soda, or to your liking.

By the way, the syrup can be used to add a rhubarb boost to cocktails as well... Great for the patio season.


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