More About Rhubarb: Growing It, Harvesting It, Eating It, and More

Rhubarb stalks can be green, red, or in between. Victoria (pictured here) has strong growth and yield habits and produces some of the sweetest stalks.

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.

Growing Rhubarb

The sight of a young rhubarb plant in early spring is a special treat after a long, harsh winter.

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.

Maintaining Rhubarb

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.

Harvesting Rhubarb

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.

Eating Rhubarb

Bebop-a-rebop, rhubarb pie!

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.

For more ways to use rhubarb,visit the Rhubarb Compendium or Rhubarb-Central.com.

Preserving Rhubarb

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.

 

 

 

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Quiche, anyone? If you’re like me, quiche seems like a pretty elegant dish. Lots of folks confuse elegance with complexity, but quiche proves that simple can be elegant, too. I was reminded of this when I was at my first Mother Earth News Fair (more about this event in a future post) where a presenter was providing tips for easy, cheap, and green living.

What got my attention was when she told us quiche was her go to dish whenever she had dinner guests. She went on to explain that since she raised chickens (we don’t), eggs were usually in strong supply and that quiche was a really simple dish to prepare, especially if you go crustless. (I don’t—more about that in a minute.) And it never failed to wow her guests. Sounded good to me.

You’d think proportions would matter with a dish like this. But I’ve seen recipes with anywhere from four to eight eggs. Some recipes call for cream, some for milk. And the amount of cheese varies significantly, too.

About that crust. The easiest thing of all is to skip it. Just be sure you spray or butter your baking dish well. I like a crust, though, for the added texture. But I’m no pastry chef. My attempts at making piecrust from scratch have usually been pretty dismal, and I find those in the refrigerated section of the grocery story—the ones in the red box with the puffy dough boy on the package—do just fine. I almost always have a package in my own refrigerator, just in case. You could use frozen, too, but I’d suggest you go for deep dish.

The neat thing about quiche, I’ve discovered, is that it’s more method than recipe. When I come across something as simple as this, I keep the ingredients and oven temperature info on a 3 x 5 index card that I stick inside a kitchen cabinet for quick reference.

Here’s my favorite take on this deceptively simple dish.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

If using a crust, lay it in your pie pan and crimp the edges. (If you’re making it from scratch, you’ll have to seek out your own recipe.)

2-4 cups veggies of your choice (We like a combo of mushrooms, onion, and Swiss chard or some other leafy green. Broccoli and bell pepper—red for color—are other favorites.) Lightly sauté or steam your veggies, depending on which ones you’re using. Remember,they’ll keep cooking in the oven, so you don’t want to overdo it.

1 ½ cups grated cheese (Again, your choice. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, whatever tickles your fancy—or whatever you have on hand. A mixture of different cheeses works well, too.)

Mix the following together:

4 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt, or to taste
½ tsp pepper, or to taste

Place prepared vegetables in pie pan. Cover with grated cheese. Pour egg mixture over all. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Add a tossed salad and a side of fresh fruit and you have an easy and sophisticated meal.

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Dear Friends,

You asked for it—well, some of you did, you’ve got it. Beginning tomorrow, March 3rd,  I’ll have a series of weekly posts about our early attempts at modern homesteading back when we first moved to the diagonal and began self-building our home.  If that’s not your thing, not to worry. I’ll intersperse the house building posts with a hodgepodge (as is my style) of other topics. Hope you’ll take this little trip down memory lane with me.

Two Love Poems for February

I’m over in my dad’s hometown this weekend for a book signing for my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories (wish me luck). Meanwhile, since it’s the month of chocolate, flowers, and valentines, I thought I’d leave you with these two small tributes to love.

Two Love Poems for February

I.

Enough?

If he loves her too much
to tell her
he doesn’t love her enough,
perhaps
he loves her enough
after all.

Snow-covered entwined branches

II.

Just How Much

When you have children
of your own
that’s when you’ll know.

That’s when you’ll know
just how much
I
love
you.