I spied the first field-grown rhubarb in the produce section the other day and that means local grown rhubarb will be showing up at the farmer’s market as well. What a treat for the seasonal pie maker. If I don’t have time, I will make a crisp, even a small one for two.
If you grew up in a rural area in Wisconsin or New England and had a garden, chances are you grew clumps of ruby-red rhubarb. If not, rhubarb is exclusively a supermarket produce special, bridging the gap between winter citrus and summer stone fruit. Hothouse-grown rhubarb shows itself year-round, has a milder flavor, yellow-green leaves, and pinkish stalks that cook up to a not-so-pretty. But the pale pink sticks are far different from fresh rhubarb gathered in a spring garden. They are taken from roots, lifted from fields in autumn and laid out in dark, warm and cavernous buildings where the stems extend prematurely.
But spring is the time for the more flavorful field-grown. The thick, celery-like stalks of rhubarb (which is really a vegetable) can reach up to 2 feet long. There are two distinct kinds of spring rhubarb—one the red and the other green, which has fatter stems. The leaves of the plant must be discarded before cooking, as they contain oxalic acid and are therefore toxic (they can be made into a potent tea and used as an insecticide). Rhubarb has long been considered a medicinal and it is so fibrous it even makes a beautiful, earthy paper for calligraphers.
Rhubarb is the gardener’s idea of the perfect garden plant — plant it, feed it well, and it comes up year after year, delivering a plentiful harvest for virtually no work. There’s no difference in flavor. No ladder involved in harvesting, just grasp a celery-like stalk firmly, pull gently and it will pop from the crown of the plant. Rhubarb has quite a following as a yummy vegetable and there is even a rhubarb compendium on the internet with absolutely everything you ever wanted or needed to know about the vegetable. You can plant rhubarb in spring or autumn — garden centers should have roots, known as sets. Plant these up to a meter apart in ground that has been deeply dug and enriched with compost or well-rotted manure. Two or three plants will supply more than enough rhubarb, but new sets will need a year in the ground before harvesting in areas with a nice snowy-cold winter. Mature plants will continue to yield well in the same place for three or four years. After that, they should be dug up and the best bits replanted. You can have rhubarb as an ornamental border as well. The leaves are stately from April onwards and the massive flower spikes, magnificent with their creamy flowers and mottled stems.
Here are the tips for home gardening:
•Trim leaves from stalk immediately.
• Don’t use stalks from frost bitten plants.
• Wash the stalks well.
• Children should be taught to eat only the rhubarb stalks, preferably under supervision
Cooking with rhubarb also is a breeze, involving none of the messy time consuming extra step of peeling or stoning required by apples, peaches, and cherries. Known as “pie plant” in some areas, rhubarb is always combined with a fair amount of sweetener to tame its natural tartness. Rhubarb is quite astringent-sour, hence the combining with the likes of strawberries, cherries, raspberries, and blueberries to sweeten it up or softening it during cooking with sugar. It has a natural affinity to orange, so you will see lots of orange zest, juice or liqueur as an additional ingredient, as well as ginger and apples. It is a favorite for country style jams, compotes, and chutney. Desserts are the most popular way to enjoy rhubarb, and it is quite delicious made into pies, cobblers, and crisps. It is also good added just chopped raw in rustic cakes and muffins. Stewed rhubarb anyone? It’s the quintessential compote ingredient. Rhubarb is now used a lot more in savory dishes, especially acidic sauces for poultry, game, and pork spiked with jalapenos, onions, mustard, balsamic vinegar, or port wine.
To prepare for cooking: Cut off the inedible leaf (Never eat the leaves on rhubarb, cooked or raw, because it can lead to an upset stomach.), then chop the stalks into bite-sized pieces and you are ready to go forth into the recipe.
How to buy: Flat stalks should be straight and crisp, like celery. Avoid limp stalks, especially if they’re curled up at the ends. For sweeter rhubarb, choose the darkest stalks. The small, paler, thinner stalks are hothouse varieties, available in supermarkets, and don’t need to be peeled and have a more delicate flavor. Store in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for 3 days before it begins to loose its crispness.
I am lucky to have foodie friends who are spectacular, and generous, cooks. Peggy Fallon, also known as Foodie Peg on the ProjectFoodie website, makes a favorite crisp with all rhubarb and a walnut topping. “I don’t want anything distracting from the taste of the wonderful rhubarb,” she said. “So it is a pure rhubarb crisp with no added berries or other fruit. It’s divine.” Dolores is the late Dolores Kostelni, familiar as the Happy Cook radio host in Virginia. I asked her how she ended up with a crumb crust and she said it was just one of those days she didn’t have time to make a regular rolled out crust. Well, the results are splendid in her strawberry rhubarb pie. I share them both with you here.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.