I know I’m not the only one who’s ignored rhubarb plants inherited from a previous landowner. Still, there’s no excuse for my neglect over ten years before finally figuring out what a goldmine I have growing right in my own backyard. I’m not talking about one little ratty plant but a stand of 6 or 7 beautiful clumps producing year after year with no, and I mean no, help from me. Several years ago I remember trying to cook a few stalks, probably way too late in the season. It was stringy and tough so I cooked it until it turned to mush and then gave up on it all together.
Seasonally speaking, rhubarb picks up where apples and pears leave off and holds us over until the berries, cherries and peaches ripen each summer. Even though it’s a vegetable, it’s hard not to consider it a fruit. I wish I were more of a baker of pies but sadly it took my continual search for fresh, local ingredients to use in cocktails to wake me up to all rhubarb’s finer qualities. Now, if I were to grow any one vegetable in my Northwest garden purely for cocktails, it would be rhubarb. Both our Rhubarb Thyme Tonic and Rhubarb Margarita have become seasonal favorites for the Cocktail Study Club.
I think it’s reputation has been tarnished by the problem of toxicity of the leaves. For the longest time this made me afraid of the whole plant. Now I know that you just cut the leaf completely off and use the stem. Last weekend at the farmers market, one vendor was dipping the raw stem in honey to give out taste tests. In the UK and parts of Scandinavia, children munch on the first-of-the-season tender rhubarb stalks dipped in sugar. We’ve used the stalks as a tasty garnish for our cocktails. They’re brilliant not only in taste but also in color. If you get them early enough in the spring, they hardly need the sugar and there’s no need to remove the outer skin either. Preparation couldn’t be easier — just chop and that’s it.
I saw an easy recipe for Roasted Rhubarb in Canal House Cooking that made me want to try rhubarb in a couple of savory dishes just to balance out all the dessert possibilities. Chop up about a pound (or large handful) of rhubarb. Place in a non-reactive deep pot. Sprinkle with about 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup red wine. Roast on 35o degrees until tender, about 30 minutes. If you want it to have a more floral flavor, you can split open a vanilla bean and add that to the pot before roasting.
The roasting method helps the pieces maintain their integrity and you can adjust the sugar to suit your own sweet tooth. I tend to like it slightly more sour than sweet. It combines well with a soft cheese like Port Madison goat cheese for an easy appetizer or on a bed of fresh greens in a salad. Throw a couple of salty nuts, like pistachios, on top to complete and enhance the flavors. The colors also look beautiful together and that’s all part of loving it.
I think my favorite combination is serving it along side a piece of pan-fried salmon. Top the roasted rhubarb with a dollop of yogurt and a chive flower or two.
Thankfully, I’ve had the capacity to change my views toward this gloriously ornamental and delicious plant and now have a new appreciation and curiosity about it’s many uses. It’s reputation as a pie plant spread across the northern states as early as the 1800’s. Since then, it’s continued to thrive, basically disease and pest-free, hardy and dependable. And yes, I’m beginning to feel some love for it’s tart taste and undemanding nature.
On a different note, one of our readers is working on her Masters in Landscape Architecture at the UW College of Built Environments. She’s promoting an event, open to everyone with an interest in urban food systems called the Designing for Urban Food Charrette. It’s taking place Thursday April 15 – Friday April 16. If their poster is any indication, it looks like it’ll be a very cool event. You may want to check it out.