There were quite a number of food rules in my German childhood: don’t drink water after eating cherries, don’t reheat spinach nor fish dishes, don’t go for a swim after eating – and don’t eat rhubarb harvested after St. John the Baptist Day on June 24.
Over time I found out that most of these rules have no scientific foundation. I have happily reheated countless slices of spinach quiche and leftover salmon without ever getting sick and broke all the other rules too – except for the one about rhubarb.
What supposedly makes rhubarb so dangerous is the oxalic acid, which is highly concentrated in rhubarb leaves and roots and makes them toxic. The stalks contain only insignificant amounts of oxalic acid, red stalks less than green ones. To harm your body you would have to eat a lot of rhubarb, and I imagine that even before having rhubarb-related health issues, you would get a sugar shock from all the sugar that is needed to make so much rhubarb palatable!
The reasoning behind that tenacious rhubarb deadline of June 24 is that supposedly rhubarb contains an elevated level of oxalic acid as the season progresses. The real reason, however, is that after the end of June the plant goes into regeneration and regrowth for next spring. Harvesting rhubarb later in the summer depletes it of its energy.
My two rhubarb plants had a slow start this year, I was able to cut very little, and only in the past two weeks do they seem to grow. There is no way I will keep my hands off rhubarb after tomorrow, and I will cut some more during the next week or two. And then, when I stop harvesting, I will do it because it’s bad for the plant (besides, in the summer heat, the stalks become fibrous), and not because of some old wife’s tale.
Orangey Baked Rhubarb
Adapted from Alice Waters’ recipe for Baked Rhubarb Compote in Chez Panisse Fruit, this is one of the most flavorful rhubarb compotes I ever made. Cooking rhubarb in the oven concentrates the juices to thick syrup, while the pieces don’t fall apart yet they are so soft they melt in your mouth. And the combination of rhubarb and orange is fantastic.
Rhubarb should not be cooked in metal dishes, which reacts with the oxalic acid (here’s another rule, yet this is one based on facts). Neither should the dish be covered with aluminum foil. I used parchment paper and butcher twine.
2¼ pounds trimmed rhubarb, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ teaspoon natural orange extract
1¼ cups sugar
½ cup orange juice
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Mix the rhubarb with all the other ingredients. Evenly distribute it in the baking dish. Cover with a sheet of parchment paper and secure it across the top with butcher twine.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, then uncover and cook for 10 more minutes. Let cool, then transfer to a jar or a container with a lid and refrigerate.
Makes 4 cups