What’s so great about rhubarb anyway?

As far as food goes, it’s pretty attractive. I’ll give it that. The stalks, which have a tart taste and resemble celery, grow in a range of colors from red to pink and even light green, but they are the only part of the plant that’s edible.

The leaves are big, beautiful things and toxic as all get out. I shudder to think of the poor souls who ingested the leaves before they put two and two together.

Because of its pucker-inducing flavor, rhubarb isn’t terribly edible without a bunch of sugar. In fact, rhubarb wasn’t widely eaten until the 19th century in England, and that was only because affordable sugar became accessible. So we treat it like an unripe fruit.

I just don’t get it. We now have access to a wide variety of delicious fruits and vegetables, so why bother with rhubarb? Nostalgia, maybe.

My mom loves it and describes it as “buttery,” but that really seems like a stretch.

It’s familiar to many of us only when served sweet with another fruit, such as in strawberry rhubarb pie. Prepared in this manner, I admit it is delicious as most anything suspended in sweet goo with flavorful counterparts tends to be.

After all of this moaning and groaning, I confess I do grow it. It’s even in my front yard flower bed.

The stalks are showy, like swiss chard, and beautiful. I’ll give them to a dear friend from whom I am careful to withhold judgement for her rhubarb love; she recently put out a desperate plea for both rhubarb and gooseberries. To me, both of those are so impractical to eat. And so I continue with my mantra: “To each his own, to each his own.”

Aside from being a lovely plant in a flower bed, the leaves are where I find the real value in rhubarb. And no, I do not mean for my worst enemies.

The oxalic acid they contain, which makes them toxic, is great for cleaning pots and pans with stubborn residue. Boil the leaves in water in those pesky pots and pans and the filth melts away.

I also love to use the big leaves for making concrete castings; their deep veins and ruffled edges make some gorgeous yard art.

Rhubarb season will be winding down soon. Find a bundle of stalks at a farmers market to try these healthier takes on traditional rhubarb recipes. But if it’s the leaves you’re after, you may have to prove your intentions to get anyone to hand them over.

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Quinoa rhubarb muffins with pistachios

1 egg

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup canola oil

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup cooked and cooled quinoa, divided

1 1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

1/4 cup pistachios, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine egg, honey, oil, sugar, yogurt and vanilla in a bowl. Stir with a whisk. Add 3/4 cup quinoa; mix to combine. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a separate large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add yogurt mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until combined. Fold in rhubarb.

Divide batter evenly among 10 muffin cups coated with cooking spray. Top evenly with remaining 1/4 cup quinoa and pistachios. Bake for 24-26 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely on a wire rack.

Recipe adapted from www.cookinglight.com.

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Low-sugar rhubarb bars

1 cup almond flour or almond meal

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling:

3 cups strawberries, hulled and diced

3 cups rhubarb, diced

1/2 orange, juiced

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Combine almond flour, whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Add butter, egg and vanilla, and pulse until the mixture is a little clumpy. Reserve 1/2 cup of the mixture for the top of the dessert. Press the rest into baking dish.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. To make the filling, mix 2 cups strawberries, 2 cups rhubarb, orange juice, sugar and cornstarch in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat stirring constantly until mixture is very thick (about 3 minutes). Mix in 1 cup of strawberries and 1 cup of rhubarb.

Spread mixture on top of crust, sprinkling the reserved crust mixture on top. Bake for 15 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 25 minutes more until the top is lightly browned. Let cool for 11/2 hours before slicing into bars.

Recipe adapted from www.snack-girl.com.

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Skillet strawberry rhubarb crisp

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

4 cups sliced rhubarb, fresh or frozen (thawed)

4 cups hulled and quartered strawberries, fresh or frozen (thawed)

2/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons orange or lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup almond meal

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until just starting to brown. Add rhubarb, strawberries and sugar; cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Whisk orange (or lemon) juice, cornstarch and vanilla in a small bowl. Drizzle over the fruit mixture and stir to combine. Combine oats, almond meal, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter and stir into the oats mixture. Crumble the topping over the fruit. Bake the crisp until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Recipe adapted from www.eatingwell.com.

Amanda Stone works in educational services, marketing and special features at the Globe. Contact her at 417-627-7288 or email her at astone@joplinglobe.com.

Amanda Stone is a food and gardening columnist for The Joplin Globe. Email questions to amandastone31@gmail.com or mail her c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

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