My former Polish exchange student is beginning to send photos of springtime offerings at Polish farmers markets.
Even with social distancing as we have here, he has been able to visit markets that appear to be full of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The rhubarb season in Poland begins in April.
Known for its sour taste, rhubarb is used in pies, cakes, tarts and drinks. One of the more popular Polish rhubarb beverages is called kompot rabarbarowy. It is a refreshing chilled drink made by boiling the stalks of rhubarb with water and sugar.
There are red and green varieties of rhubarb. The red variety is more popular, but the stalks tend to be more fibrous. They sometimes need to be peeled before cooking. Green varieties are more common here. They are winter hardy and produce higher yields.
Before World War II, most of the rhubarb grown in the United States was the green variety. When sugar was rationed during that time, rhubarb disappeared from the marketplace, since sugar is needed to offset the sourness. There has never been the level of demand for rhubarb that existed before the war.
Botanically, rhubarb is an herbaceous vegetable and is a member of the buckwheat family. We think of it as a dessert ingredient, but it can also be used in savory dishes. Centuries ago, rhubarb was cooked with potatoes in Poland. Rhubarb is delicious in curry. An addition of 1/3 to ½ cup chopped rhubarb mixed in a favorite curry recipe will add a delicious, tart note.
Stewed rhubarb can be added to smoothies or used as a topping for cereal or ice cream. It compliments strawberries and can be used in pies and jams.
Rhubarb leaves are toxic due to their high concentration of oxalic acid, and, while it would take 11 pounds of rhubarb leaves to kill a 145-pound person, even a small amount should be avoided, because it can cause other physical impairments. Eat only the healthy stalks.
Rhubarb contains dietary fiber and is an excellent source of vitamin K. Rhubarb is also a good source of other vitamins and minerals.
When cooking rhubarb, use a nonreactive pan or baking dish, because the acidity in rhubarb reacts with aluminum, iron and copper and will turn the pans brown.
Rhubarb is beginning to show up at local farmers markets. It is an ingredient that can provide texture, acidity and unique flavor to many dishes. I encourage you to experiment with this versatile and adaptable vegetable.
Like ramps, rhubarb signals the end of winter. This Polish rhubarb cake is full of springtime freshness and bright flavor. It is great as a dessert, but even better as a coffee cake in the morning.
Polish Rhubarb Crumb Cake
3 cups chopped rhubarb
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup flour
For crumb topping:
5 tablespoons butter, melted
2/3 cups light brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the cake:
3/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350° F
Prepare two 8-inch pans, grease with butter and line bottom with parchment paper.
For the filling:
Trim ends of rhubarb and slice into 1/2-inch pieces, toss with powdered sugar and 1/4 cup flour, set aside. The rhubarb will release juices while you prepare the other components.
For the crumb:
Combine butter, brown sugar, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
For the cake:
Combine the sour cream, eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
In another bowl, combine 2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking soda, baking powder and a pinch salt.
Work in butter and add wet ingredients.
Add walnuts to the cake batter, stirring until uniformly combined.
Spread batter in prepared pans, top with rhubarb mixture. Crumble topping over the rhubarb.
Bake 50-60 minutes (internal temp 210° F), cool before serving.