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Rhubarb's stalk of the town

PICK OF THE CROP Healthy rhubarb can even help in the fight against cancer

RIGHT, it may not feel like spring, but I am trying my level best to get into that spring feeling – when you feel like going for a run instead of dragging yourself out, when you attack all the dry winter skin and give yourself a good exfoliation and lather on shea butter. And in the case of this column, when you swap the rich, comfort foods of winter, for the lighter, brighter verdant foods of spring.

One of the first signs that spring has sprung for me is spotting the first bunches of pinkly delicious rhubarb. Rhubarb is one of the few fruits (actually a vegetable) that has escaped the year-round availability we have of many fruits and vegetables.

While I love strawberries, for instance, there is something a little weird about seeing them on shelves in January. I also think that there is far greater joy in having to wait for a fruit or vegetable to come into season.

Growing rhubarb is relatively easy, and it enjoys the mild Irish climate. It is possible to grow the plant in large pots as long as the pots are big enough to allow for growth.

Because rhubarb is considered a perennial, it is left in the ground and will continue to grow for at least 10-15 years.

Rhubarb isn't harvested in its first year as the soil needs the nutrients to go back into it, but from year two you should have an abundance to harvest. You may even get two crops in a season.

Some rhubarb is grown in heated greenhouses and is generally available year around. In a climate that is continually warm, rhubarb will grow all year long. In colder climates the plant will disappear during the winter months but will grow again as the weather gets warm.

Rhubarb is very resilient and can go for longer periods of time without water, unlike other vegetables. It usually needs little tending to apart from adding fertiliser and compost for nutrients with each new season.

It is best grown from the crowns of the rhubarb instead of from seed. It's also best to plant in the early part of spring when the temperature of the soil is still low.

Plant the crown about four inches into the soil with the crown of the bud at two inches below. Harvesting rhubarb is done by cutting the stems at the level of the soil or by simply pulling up the stems.

Rhubarb is part of the dock family and has been used in Chinese medicine as a powerful disease fighter for many years, particularly for constipation.

A compound called anthraquinones gets things moving as well as its high fibre content. Regular servings act as a mild laxative so don't overindulge. But this is a safe, natural remedy for a common digestive problem.

Also very effective to lower high blood cholesterol, rhubarb works in several ways. The high fibre content helps push dietary cholesterol through the digestive system so that it can be excreted.

Rhubarb also inhibits certain enzymes involved in cholesterol synthesis, meaning less cholesterol is produced. And rhubarb is also very high in vitamin C, which keeps heart tissue healthy, thereby preventing damage and plaquing of the arteries. Great for the immune system, too!

Recent studies in the field of cancer research show rhubarb to be a very exciting prospect in the treatment of the disease. Medication is being synthesised using rhubarb to treat cancers that may be resistant to existing drugs.

The active ingredient in rhubarb is antioxidants called polyphenols that have great cancer-cell busting properties. These are actually enhanced through cooking, so add a little stewed rhubarb to your diet for its anti-cancer benefits.

Unfortunately rhubarb doesn't agree with everyone as it contains oxalic acid which can aggravate certain conditions such as gout, rheumatism, arthritis and people prone to kidney stones should avoid it.

It is this same acid that will get any stained pot sparkling like new if you boil up some rhubarb in it. It's particularly effective on horrible grill pans that seem beyond salvaging. A very old-fashioned remedy but it works.

Rhubarb is very tart by nature, but I think this is part of its charm, too.

Studies have shown that those who regularly eat bitter or sour foods tend to eat less sugar and sweet foods. This makes sense to me for if you enjoy a wide range of tastes, you won't just go for sweet foods.

We have been conditioned by processed foods to expect and want the very sweet taste.

To sweeten rhubarb I often mix it with other fruit such as pears, apples and strawberries. Then I only add a little sugar or honey. I love poaching fruit with spices such as cinnamon, ginger and star anise to add a warm, aromatic flavour note.

Irish Independent