Yes, I’m on a rhubarb kick. After all, it’s that time of year, and I think rhubarb is the cat’s meow. Just when you think winter will never end, rhubarb proves you wrong. A harbinger of spring, rhubarb has lots of virtues. In addition to its colorful stalks and massive leaves, rhubarb is an easy-to-maintain perennial; it’s loaded with important vitamins (C, K, B complex), minerals (calcium, potassium, manganese, magnesium), flavonoids (beta carotene, lutein), and fiber; it has a long growing season; you can eat it fresh, canned, or frozen.
If you live in the right climate (dormancy temps under 40°F and average summer temps below 75), look for rhubarb crowns in your favorite garden store or catalog. Early spring is the best time to plant. Find a well-drained spot in the edge of your garden or yard and get rid of any weeds growing there. Dig a large hole (at least a foot wide and a foot deep), fill it with aged compost or well-rotted manure, and place the rhubarb crown in the center with its top no more than two inches below the soil’s surface. Then water it in. Give each plant about one square yard—it will expand to fill that space over time. Add a thick layer of mulch or newsprint around (but not on top of) the crown—like most of us, rhubarb does not like weeds. Voilá! You’ve done it. Your rhubarb plant(s) should last a decade or more with little to no additional effort from you.
One, two, three and you’ll have rhubarb for years to come. First, keep weeds out—a thick layer of mulch will save your aching back. Second, keep a watch on your plants for those pesky flower heads; as soon as you spot one, snip its stalk to keep the flower from robbing the plant of its nutrients. You want all that energy to focus on growing more and stronger stalks. Rhubarb doesn’t like drought so water during dry spells. That’s about it. It doesn’t hurt to add some organic fertilizer each spring, but your rhubarb should do just fine without it.
Even though your rhubarb should give you good harvests for ten or more years, it’s best to divide it after four or five. Now, you have even more rhubarb for those wonderful cakes, pies, and breads. Or you can give extra crowns to your favorite friends.
Remember that virtue, Patience? It will come in handy during your first year or two growing rhubarb. As much as you may want a thick slice of juicy rhubarb pie, keep your hands off during its first growing season. It needs all the energy it can get to establish itself well. Even in its second year, you should harvest only lightly—just a couple of stems off each plant. After that, you can pretty much have your way with rhubarb. You can harvest it all at once, but better to leave a few stalks on each plant so it will keep producing. Although spring is rhubarb’s peak season, you can harvest all summer as long as you remember to begin reducing the number of stalks you pick after June.
To gather rhubarb, you can use a knife to cut the stalk at ground level, or you can grab hold at that same point and give it a gentle yank while simultaneously twisting the stalk.
Cut off the leaves of your harvested stalks. They’re poisonous. But don’t throw them out. Toss them on your compost pile, instead. Don’t worry. The toxic oxalic acid breaks down as it composts.
Pie: Of course, pie is the first thing most of us think of when rhubarb is mentioned. And why not? Baking a rhubarb pie is as easy as . . . well, pie. It’s a kindness to say my luck with making from-scratch pie crusts has been erratic, so I rely on frozen or refrigerated. I find them just as tasty as homemade. With a refrigerated crust, I can use my own pan so my guests never know my secret—I can trust you not to tell, right? Frozen crusts come with a disposable pan. Perfect if you’re giving your pie to some lucky person.
Making your crust decision may be the hardest part about this pie. All you need to do is remember this standard ratio: four parts rhubarb to one part sugar. In other words, chop four cups of rhubarb into ½-inch slices; place into a bowl and mix in one cup of sugar to coat. For a heaping filling or deep dish pie, add another cup of rhubarb with an additional quarter cup of sugar. (To be honest, I like my pie a little less sweet than this, so I usually cut back on the sugar—maybe 3 ½ cups.)
Mix in about 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) of flour or cornstarch to thicken the juice and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon for a richer, more complex flavor profile. (To make your rhubarb pie baking even simple, slip an index card with this easy recipe/formula inside a kitchen cabinet for easy reference.)
Pour mixture in pie pan, cover with top crust, crimp the edges, and make four slits in the top crust with a sharp knife. Bake in 425° (preheated) oven for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and cook for an additional 20-30 minutes. Check in occasionally to be sure edge isn’t overbrowning. If it is, cover edge with a silicone shield ring or strips of aluminum foil.
Let cool for at least fifteen minutes. Eat plain or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
(If you’d rather have cake, check out this recipe for a skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)
Stew: Rhubarb stew is just pie without the calorie-laden crust and can be served either as a side dish or dessert. Using he same four to one ratio measurement (or whatever proportions seem right to your palate), place rhubarb, sugar, and a couple tablespoons of water into a saucepan. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until rhubarb is soft. Serve warm or cold in individual bowls.
Syrup: See this post for a great syrup recipe. The things you can use rhubarb syrup for are limited only by your imagination: mixed with carbonated water for soda, poured over ice cream, drizzled over pound cake, added to lemonade, mixed with cocktails.
It’s ridiculously easy to freeze rhubarb. No blanching needed. Simply wash and thoroughly dry the stalks, cut them into ½ or ¾ inch pieces, and place into your preferred freezer container. I use FoodSaver bags to vacuum seal mine—it prevents freezer burn. I also to measure and label my bags. That way when I want to, say, bake a pie, I can use the entire pre-measured bag, No need to thaw, either. Just mix with other ingredients and prepare as usual. Bringing the taste of spring into the kitchen on a frigid January day is one of the best pick-me-ups I can imagine for a winter-weary soul.