by Andrea Yoder
Rhubarb is an interesting vegetable that is often thought of as a fruit. It is a perennial crop that grows from gnarly looking crowns. It thrives well in cold climates, and is thought to have originated in Asia in the areas of present-day China, Russia and Mongolia. It was originally used for the medicinal properties found in the roots, which have also been used to make bitters. It was also consumed for its detoxifying properties. Rhubarb has a tart, sour flavor that will certainly make you pucker. It was for this reason that rhubarb didn’t gain much popularity until sugar became more readily available and it was used to balance the tartness. It is now commonly used for making pies and over time rhubarb has become known as “The Pie Plant.” It takes about three years to establish a rhubarb plant. In those first three years you are discouraged from harvesting any rhubarb so that there is more plant to gather and generate energy to put towards developing the crown. There are different varieties of rhubarb ranging from all green to deep red. We grow a variety that produces beautiful bright red stalks.
Rhubarb is typically cooked before it is eaten. When cooked in a small amount of liquid, the rhubarb stalks will melt into the cooking liquid and the fiber and weight of the plant will act as a thickener. While rhubarb pie is one of my favorite spring desserts, there is a lot more potential for rhubarb that goes beyond pie. It pairs well with lemons, oranges, honey, strawberries, lavender, apples, and warm spices such as cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cardamom. Because of its tartness, rhubarb pairs well with rich, fatty foods such as duck, poultry, pork and some creamy, sharp cheese varities. You can use rhubarb as the base for tart dipping sauces, chutney, barbecue sauce, stir-frys and stir-fry sauces. It adds a nice tartness and background flavor to braising or cooking liquids for things such as pork shoulder or ham. It is also good in other sweet preparations such as Mexican Rhubarb Chocolate Chunk Brownies (featured on the Food Network), cakes, cookies, muffins, pancakes, etc. Rhubarb is also a fun ingredient to include in drinks. We have a recipe on our website in our recipe archives for rhubarb syrup that can be added to sparkling water or cocktails. Rhubarb is also super easy to preserve. Just wash it, dice it and stick it in a freezer bag in the freezer. When you’re ready to use it, just remove it from the freezer and thaw it prior to use.
Parsnips are much different from rhubarb in appearance and flavor. Parsnips have a distinct flavor that some people love and others are still learning to appreciate. They are a very challenging crop to grow and have a long growing season. We plant the seeds early in the spring when the soil is still cold. It can take as long as two to three weeks for the seeds to germinate and push through the soil. Unfortunately the weeds never have a problem growing, which is one of the challenges we have over the course of their long season. We invest a lot of time cultivating and hand weeding our parsnip crop so we can have a healthy crop to harvest in the fall. We start harvesting parsnips late in September or the first part of October. While we harvest the majority of our crop in the fall, we also leave a small amount in the ground every fall. How crazy are we to leave a high dollar crop in the field to get buried under snow! Parsnips are amazing and can survive in the frozen ground over the winter. We dig them early in the spring as soon as the ground thaws and dries out.
Overwintered parsnips are much sweeter than our fall-harvested parsnips. Over the course of the winter starches are converted to sugars and sometimes they’re so sweet they taste like candy. So what does one do with a parsnip? One of the easiest things to do is slice them up and sauté them in butter or toss them with olive oil and roast them until they are golden brown. But if you’re still learning to appreciate the flavor of parsnips, you might find their flavor a bit too parsnip-y for your liking. There are many other things you can do with a parsnip. Small amounts added to soups and stews add a nice background flavor. Farmer Richard likes to add parsnips to his signature pot of split pea soup. In this week’s featured recipe for parsnip-ginger meatballs, the parsnips add moisture to the meat and their sweetness balances the tartness of the rhubarb barbecue sauce. You can also try to maximize their characteristic sweetness and use them in sweet preparations such as muffins, cakes, and even pie! While a parsnip is not just a “white carrot,” you can substitute parsnips for carrots in baked goods such as carrot cake, cookies or muffins. They add not only sweetness, but moisture to baked goods. The sweet, earthy flavor of parsnips pairs well with maple syrup, Dijon mustard, apples, oranges, onions, parsley, chives, raisins, ginger and warm spices such as coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Parsnips are more common in Europe, but are gaining popularity in the U.S. In the Middle Ages parsnips were a staple vegetable in Central and Northern Europe because they could be used as a starch and a sweetener. In the 19th century, the English & Irish folks used parsnips to make a wine which turned out similar to sweet Madeira. They even made parsnip beer in Northern Ireland!
Both parsnips and rhubarb have an important place in our Midwestern spring diets. I never really considered using them together in the same dish until I stopped and thought about their similarities and differences. They both pair well with some of the same ingredients such as spices and fruit. While one is tart and the other is sweet, their differences balance each other out. I hope you’ll try some different ways of preparing these vegetables this spring and if you stumble upon an unusual recipe or way to prepare this odd couple, let us know so we can try it as well!