What vegetable was reclassified as a fruit by the U.S. Customs Court in 1947?

  • Rhubarb had arrived on this side of the Atlantic by 1832, when former Northampton resident abolitionist and cookbook author Lydia Maria Child noted, “These are dear pies because they take an enormous quantity of sugar.” Clair Hopley’s Rhubarb and Almond Cake is dusted with confectioner’s sugar. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Almond Cake STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb is a welcome perennial in Hopley's garden. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Almond Cake STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb, Chive and Egg Soup STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb in Claire Hopley's garden. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Almond Cake —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rhubarb and Almond Cake —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS






For the Gazette
Published: 6/7/2019 3:54:06 PM
Modified: 6/7/2019 3:53:51 PM

Rhubarb delivers a serious blast of acidity, and that’s a major source of this unusual plant’s amazing array of possibilities.

The acidity comes from naturally occurring oxalic acid. It’s powerful stuff: used commercially in dying, cleaning and rust removal. You can see it in action on the pan used to cook rhubarb, which emerges from the task dazzlingly clean. The scouring actions have applied to humans, too. The root has long been used as a purgative and liver cleanser.

Rhubarb is a native of Siberia and Mongolia, and its roots first reached western Europe via the Silk Road. They were known by the Romans and then rediscovered in the Renaissance. When sixteenth-century poet John Skelton wrote of “the rhubarb of Repentance” he was using the effect of rhubarb on the body as a metaphor for the pangs of conscience.

The first European recipes using rhubarb stalks come from late eighteenth-century England. While awaiting the apple harvests, cooks turned to rhubarb as a pie filling, evidently deciding that their juiciness made them a reasonable spring substitute for autumn fruits.

Rhubarb had arrived on this side of the Atlantic by 1832, when former Northampton resident abolitionist and cookbook author Lydia Maria Child noted its advantage as “the earliest ingredient for pies,” and equally its disadvantage: “These are dear pies because they take an enormous quantity of sugar.”

Sweetening is certainly vital to this very tart pie filling. Less obviously, so is fat because it coats the taste buds and softens the acid tang. This explains why rhubarb remains popular in baked goods, which always have butter or other fat as well as sugar among the ingredients. Indeed, in America, its main traditional use was in pies, hence its early American name pie plant.

Lydia Maria Child, however, called it Persian apple. Maybe it got the apple part of this name because it is so often substituted for apples. Persian is harder to account for, though in Persia (now called Iran) cooks value rhubarb. Not however in desserts or sweet dishes: instead they use rhubarb in khoreshes, a class of stews combining fruit with meat – in the case of rhubarb with lamb. Iranians also make a rhubarb soup served with a fried or poached egg in the center.

In thinking about such non-sweet uses of rhubarb we can see that its tartness offsets the richness of fatty dishes, while their unctuousness ameliorates its acidity. Rhubarb also appears in sauces, especially for fish, and in sweet-sour chutneys. Clearly, such recipes treat it is as a vegetable, as indeed it is. But in baked goods, it is used like a fruit. To accommodate this, in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court reclassified it as a fruit.

In its fruity role rhubarb also appears in jams and in drinks such as home-made wine and summer coolers. More surprisingly, it’s an ingredient of Italian Amari — bitter mildly alcoholic drinks served as aperitifs. Rhubarb helps power Fernet Branca and Aperol, currently a fashionable summer favorite. (To make it, fill a glass with ice, and add 2 ounces Prosecco (¼ cup) plus 1½ ounces — one jigger — Aperol plus splashes of seltzer or soda water to taste. Garnish with an orange slice.)

As well as its roles in contemporary drinks and ancient medicine, homey baked goods and exotic soups and stews, rhubarb also stars in the Zoroastrian creation myth. It tells of the first man and woman Mashya and Mashyana, who grew out of a rhubarb plant. Promising to help battle the powers of darkness, Mashyana gave birth to fifteen sets of twins, who spread around the world, founding the races of humans, and aiding the forces of Light.

Something to think about when you enjoy rhubarb this spring.

Something not to think about is eating the leaves. Despite their rumpled good looks, they carry a big belt of oxalic acid and can be toxic.



This is a perfect soup for summer: the acid edge of the rhubarb is refreshing while the sunny-colored soup with its emerald snips of chives is delectably pretty. If you have leftovers, the rice may absorb a lot of the liquid, in which case add more stock. Reheat very gently but don’t let it boil as boiling could curdle the eggs.

1 ¼ cups (about 4 ounces or 2-3 stalks) rhubarb cut in ¼-inch bits

8 whole chive stems

5 cups flavorful chicken or vegetable stock

½ teaspoon powdered turmeric or as needed

3 tablespoon uncooked rice, rinsed

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

2 eggs

For garnish: 2 tablespoons snipped chives plus

chive blossom petals if available

Put the rhubarb in a saucepan with 1 ½ cups of water and the chive stems and simmer for 5-6 minutes or until the rhubarb is very tender. Strain through a sieve pressing to make sure you get all the juice from the rhubarb and chives. You can discard them when you have done this.

Return the liquid to the pan. Add the stock and the turmeric, stir, bring to boiling point then stir in the rice and salt. Cook for 12-15 minutes or until the rice is tender. Turn off the heat.

While the soup is cooking, thoroughly whisk the eggs making sure that the yolks and whites are well mixed. Slowly add a ladle of the hot — but not boiling — soup to the eggs, stirring all the time. Slowly stir in another ladleful. Now with the pan off the heat tip the egg mixture into the pan stirring as you go. Stir in most of the snipped chives. Serve immediately (or serve cold) with a sprinkle of the remaining chives plus chive blossom petals if you have them. Note that this soup can be reheated but keep it below simmering point and do not let it boil or the eggs may curdle.



This recipe is good with strongly flavored fish such as salmon or bluefish, and also with meat. It can be tweaked into a sweet-and-sour sauce by adding more honey, brightened in color by using two tomatoes rather than one, softened in taste by adding more cream, or given a bitter kick with a dose of Aperol. Taste as you go along and adjust it to suit your palate.

1 tablespoon bland vegetable oil

¾ cup chopped onion

1 cup rhubarb cut in ¼ inch bits (about 2 long sticks)

1 large tomato, skinned, seeded and chopped

½ cup tomato juice or as needed

Pinch salt or to taste

2 teaspoons powdered coriander

1-2 tablespoons honey or to taste

1-2 tablespoon Aperol (optional)

½ cup heavy cream or more as needed

Heat in the oil over moderate heat in a saucepan or frying pan, add the onion and cook gently for 3-4 minutes to soften. Now stir in the rhubarb and the chopped tomato, and tomato juice. Add the salt and powdered coriander and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until all the ingredients are tender. Stir in a tablespoon of honey. If you are using Aperol, add it one tablespoon at a time, tasting as you go. Finally, add half a cup of heavy cream. The acid in the rhubarb quickly thickens the cream so you may want to add more. Taste again and add more honey, salt, Aperol, or cream as you judge fit. For serving spoon portions onto four plates and set a fish filet on top. Or serve as a relish.



For the filling

½ pound rhubarb (about 3-4 long stalks), trimmed

½ to ¾ cup sugar or to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Grated zest from half a large orange

1-2 tablespoons cornstarch

For the cake

1 cup cake flour

1½ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1¼ sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature

1¼ cups sugar

3 eggs

1½ teaspoons almond extract

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons milk or as needed

½ cup flaked almonds

1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar

To make the filling, put the rhubarb in a saucepan with a tablespoon of water. Put on the lid and set on low heat for 3-4 minutes. Now stir in the sugar and the butter and continue cooking over moderate heat until the rhubarb is juicy and tender. Stir in the orange zest. In a small bowl mix a tablespoon of the cornstarch to a thin paste with a tablespoon or so of cold water. Stir in some hot juice from the pan, the add this cornstarch mixture to the rhubarb to thicken it. Since rhubarb varies in juiciness, this may not be sufficient to thicken it to a thick jam-like paste consistency. If so, repeat it with the second tablespoon of cornstarch. Set aside to cool completely. (You can make it ahead and keep in the fridge if you like.)

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8 or 9-inch square pan or line with parchment paper.

Mix together the cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In a large bowl or an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until they are light in color and fluffy. Add one egg and one tablespoon of the flour mixture and mix thoroughly. Now add the other eggs, another tablespoon of the flour mixture, and the almond extract. Gently mix in half the remaining flour with half the sour cream. Repeat with the rest of the flour and cream. Stir in the milk a tablespoon at a time until the mixture is soft enough to spread easily.

Spread half this mixture in the prepared pan. Spread the rhubarb filling on top. Cover with the remaining mixture. Top with the almonds.

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer or cocktail stick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool. Sieve confectioner’s sugar over the top for serving.




½ cup whole or halved pecans (or walnuts)

½ cup granulated sugar

1 cup rhubarb, cut in 1/ 4 slices

1½ tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

1 stick butter

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

1 egg, lightly beaten

About ½ cup milk

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Put the pecans on a shallow metal pan in a single layer and put them in the oven to toast for about 4-5 minutes. They are ready when they smell fragrant and are a shade darker in color. Remove. If the pecans are whole, chop them coarsely. Put about a quarter of the bits in a bowl along with 2 tablespoons of the sugar and set aside for the topping. Turn the oven temperature up to 375 degrees.

While the pecans are toasting, put the rhubarb in a bowl and toss it with the confectioner’s sugar. Set aside for 8-10 minutes or until the rhubarb looks moist and juicy

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and ginger. Cut the butter in small bits and rub them into the dry ingredients. Now stir in the sugar. (You can use a food processor for these steps if you like.)

Make a well in the center of the mixture. Mix the egg with milk, and pour into the well. Stir very briefly to wet the mixture then quickly stir in almost all the rhubarb and the pecans (other than those you set aside). Do not overmix. Divide the mixture among the prepared muffin cups. Add the leftover rhubarb bits to the tops. Also sprinkle on the nuts and sugar that you previously set aside Pop the muffins in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. To test, poke in a skewer or cocktail stick. If it comes out clean, the muffins are ready.



Despite its other fruit-like uses, it’s often supposed that rhubarb can’t be made into jam. Though it doesn’t set super firmly, it makes a superb jam when teamed with ginger — a good accompaniment to rhubarb also in pies and cakes. For jam, stick with powdered ginger: the flavor of grated fresh ginger doesn’t survive the high-temperature cooking needed for jam. If you have candied or preserved ginger some pea-sized bits can be added for extra toothsomeness if you like.

1 pound rhubarb (about 6-7 long stalks), cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound (2 cups) white sugar

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

Juice of one juicy lemon

¼ to ½ cup chopped candied or preserved ginger (optional)

Put a small plate in the freezer for later use. Put the rhubarb in a large pan, set over low heat, cover and cook for a few minutes until the juice is running. Remove the lid, increase the heat a little, and continue to cook for a short while more until the rhubarb is tender. Add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Also stir in the ginger and lemon juice. Increase the heat and let the jam boil as rapidly as possible until the setting point is reached. Stir it often. If you have a sugar thermometer jam sets at 221 degrees Fahrenheit. No problem if you don’t have one. Drop a teaspoonful onto your chilled plate from the freezer and set it aside for a minute then tip the plate. If the jam moves only slowly and wrinkles very slightly when pushed with a spoon, it is ready. Another observational method is to hold a spoonful of the boiling jam several inches above the pan and tip it back in. If the final drops run together to make a little dollop rather than dripping off one by one, the jam is set.

Pour into jars sterilized either by boiling or setting them in a 250-degree oven. This recipe makes about 3 half-pint jars, which keep successfully for 6 weeks in a cool place.



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy