Pop quiz: If you bought rhubarb in any L.A. grocery store in the past six months, do you know where it came from?
A) Washington state
Turn the page for the answer.
If you answered A, B, or C you're right. Sorry, but California is not a correct answer. Rhubarb, which is a member of the buckwheat family, is not a big Golden State crop. As Felicia Friesema pointed out in her story in April, you can find certain varieties of rhubarb in farmers markets, most of it from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. In a phone survey by Squid Ink of local grocery stores, Washington and Oregon were split pretty evenly as the main sources for our local rhubarb supply. In the winter, some L.A. stores get their rhubarb from Holland (yes, Holland).
Rhubarb was grown commercially in Southern California until the 1990s, according to Dale Marshall, retired USDA rhubarb researcher. In a phone interview, Marshall explained that botanist Luther Burbank brought rhubarb to this area from New Zealand in 1893. Burbank is credited with bringing three varieties of rhubarb: Crimson Winter, Burbank Giant and New Giant Crimson Winter. Eventually, the fields were taken over by industrial development. (And in case you're wondering, the city of Burbank is not named after Luther. That honor goes to a dentist, Dr. David Burbank. (But don't feel sorry for Luther, he got a middle school named after him.)
Finding local rhubarb isn't easy for bakers, including Tonya Dooley, chief pie artisan of Cutie Pie That!, which bakes for farmers markets and special events. Dooley's pie company has been in business for a year, and one of her goals is to always use local, certified organic produce. But when her customers started requesting strawberry rhubarb pie, Dooley faced a challenge: “I set about looking for rhubarb at the farmers markets and I really had a hard time finding it. … I actually had to buy it from Whole Foods and Sprouts.” (The rhubarb she ended up buying was grown in Oregon.)
In a University of California publication, “Rhubarb Production in California,” Cooperative Extension Vegetable Farm Adviser Wayne L. Schrader writes: “In the United States, commercial production (about 1,200 acres) is concentrated in Washington, Oregon and Michigan. Small commercial acreage is found in many northern states. Hothouse rhubarb (about 175 acres) is produced in Washington and Michigan.”
The reason these northern states produce so much rhubarb is that most varieties of the plant need a dormant period where the ground freezes, which we don't have a lot of in California. Schrader writes that annual rhubarb grown in hot weather “either dies or produces thin and spindly leaf stalks that lack color.”
Rhubarb expert Mary Bell, publisher and co-author of “Everything Rhubarb: Recipes and Stories From a Small Town that Celebrates Rhubarb,” tells us that rhubarb is “one of the most giving plants, in that you put it in the ground and hopefully you put it in the right place — which is a place that has fairly good soil and water doesn't pool … and you plant the rhubarb and probably for the rest of your life, you're going to have rhubarb coming up.”
Bell, who has more than 125 rhubarb plants on her property in Lanesboro, Minn., is a member of a group called the Divine Rhubarb Committee, which puts on a rhubarb festival each June. One goal of the group is to honor rhubarb, which Bell characterizes as “an underutilized, undervalued crop.”
Rhubarb typically is cooked or baked, but Bell, owner of the Dry Store, gives the plant a new twist: “I grind it and I dry it in the dehydrator and I make flakes. I sprinkle those flakes on popcorn and we put it in ice cream.”
We should remind everyone that you never want to eat rhubarb leaves, which are toxic. Writes Schrader: “Rhubarb leaves are poisonous because they contain oxalates. People have died trying to use the leaves as a vegetable green. Eat only the petioles (stalks). Trim off all leaf tissue before using rhubarb in recipes.”
Now that we're in a dark place, we'll digress to tell you about a wonderful (and creepy) short story, in which poison rhubarb leaves play a key role: “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro, from her 2009 book Too Much Happiness.
But to end on a lighter note, we'll point out one plus of grocery store rhubarb: The produce department cuts away all of the scary leaves, so you're good to go with the nicely trimmed stalks.
A recipe for a chilled rhubarb soup, perfect for hot weather:
Minted Rhubarb Soup
From: Everything Rhubarb, by Dr. Kay Johnson.
Makes: 4 servings
1 ½ cups white grape juice
1/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
6 ½ cups fresh rhubarb, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 pint fresh raspberries
½ cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Optional: additional raspberries and mint leaves for garnish
1. Bring the grape juice and sugar to a gentle boil over moderate heat in a large, nonreactive saucepan. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat. Add the mint leaves. Let stand 15 minutes. Remove the mint.
2. Return the pan to moderate heat and bring the juice to a boil. Add the rhubarb and simmer until soft, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add the raspberries and simmer 5 minutes longer. Remove from the heat. Cool.
3. Puree the mixture. Then strain through a sieve into a large bowl. Cover and chill for at least two hours.
4. Whip the cheese and powdered sugar in a bowl until thick.
5. Serve the soup in chilled bowls. Top with a dollop of the whipped mascarpone. Garnish with fresh raspberries and mint, if desired. Refrigerate any leftovers.
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