Generally I prefer field grown produce over hot house. A tomato is a perfect example. The flavor and texture of a tomato grown in natural sunlight is far superior to its hot house counterpart.
With rhubarb however the opposite is true. I get excited when hot house rhubarb arrives. A lot of it has to do with the color. Hot house is pink all the way through and holds that color even after it is baked. Field grown rhubarb, not as pretty even in its raw state, turns an unattractive light brown color when put on the stove or in the oven. Rhubarb is enough of a challenge for a pastry chef to sell. Maintaining its bright red flavor helps. The flavor isn’t sacrificed either. Its less stringy allowing me to do more things with it than just bake it in a crisp or pie.
We are now getting hot house rhubarb from Sumner, Washington. For hot house growing, rhubarb stalks are put in soil in a dark room. In the old days the rooms were heated by pot belly stoves but now furnaces are used. This technological advancement freed up the farmers from getting up in the middle of the night and tending the fires.
There are two varieties of hot house rhubarb. First up is Victoria. It is milder in flavor and a beautiful pink color. Once that has been harvested the next variety planted is Refill. It’s tarter than Victoria. Unlike Victoria, Refill can be grown inside or outside. Crimson is the field grown variety we are all most familiar with. Crimson can’t be grown indoors or it rots.
Interestingly the leaves on hot house rhubarb are smaller as the lack of light forces all the energy into the plant rather than the leaves. And yes, it is true you shouldn’t eat rhubarb leaves. They have a high concentration of oxalic acid.
Botanically rhubarb is a vegetable although it was classified by a New York State Court in the 1940’s as a fruit for taxing purposes. They rationalized since it was predominately used for pies (hence its nickname the pie plant) which are fruit based it should be labeled as such. In other countries rhubarb is served as a vegetable. In Poland it is cooked with potatoes and in Iran it’s used in stews.
As rhubarb season gets into full throttle if you want to brighten a pastry chef’s day, try the rhubarb dessert on his/her menu. They are not as popular as other fruit desserts but we have a soft spot for them and always wish they sold more.