The Big Red Beast-Rhubarb!
Coping with the annual abundance of rhubarb
STORY AND PHOTO BY LARA FERRONI
The rhubarb plant in my garden is a monster not easily tamed. I cut it back and it just grows larger, shooting up new stalks and even more enormous leaves, smothering my new dill shoots that are doing their best to find the sun. I seriously start pondering how much longer I can stand its bulk, secretly praying for it to become the garden slugs’ next snack. Perhaps they know that the leaves are highly toxic; they’re loaded with oxalic acid, which is as good for polishing metal as it is bad for digestion. My beast continues to grow, completely unhampered by pests or disease, just cranking out more stalks. I try to give it away, but my friends have rhubarb of their own to battle.
It isn’t always this antagonistic. In early spring, that first hint of growth pushing its way up signals brighter days ahead and the thrill of local produce other than the ever-present braising greens. I wander out to the garden each day (ok, maybe each hour) to see how much it has grown. I toy with the idea of buying some additional imported “pie plant” crowns to amp up this early season excitement. I hold myself back from premature stalk harvest. I dream of that first sweet-tart pie.
By the end of May, I’ve had my fill of compote, pie and crumble and I start to worry about what I’m going to do with the pounds I will continue to harvest over the next five months of the lengthy growing season. That’s when it dawns on me that rhubarb doesn’t always need its best pal strawberry along for the ride. It is, despite England’s “Jam and Similar Products Regulation” official legal definition, actually a vegetable and not a fruit. Before its introduction into American cuisine in the 1800s—where it is rarely found without a healthy dose of berry and pastry—this buckwheat relative was traditionally served in stews (pork and rhubarb is a British classic) or used for medicinal purposes (its roots are a powerful purgative). Why not give some savory recipes a try?
And so I do. Stewed down in a little wine, strained and then reduced, and you have a rhubarb syrup that will impart that fruity, grassy spring flavor into a host of sauces. Rhubarb pickles turn out to be a tangy revelation piled onto a freshly grilled sausage or served alongside a thick slice of ham. When rhubarb is diced and seasoned with the simplest of vinaigrettes, the result is a bruschetta topping that is bright and flavorful enough to give tomatoes a run for their money.
But, still, the rhubarb keeps coming. Finally, over the holidays, my friend Beth let me in on her rhubarb management secret: she socks away her excess shoots in the freezer. Simply clean the stalks, slice, and freeze them flat on a baking sheet before bagging them up. The pieces can then be used later in muffins, compotes, or pies…or really any dessert where the rhubarb softens. Beth’s uses hers to make a simple, homey quick bread which is plump with chunks of rhubarb and cinnamon sugar. Throughout the winter, whenever she needs a little taste of spring, she just bakes up a loaf. I will definitely be following her lead.
Lara Ferroni is a former tech geek turned food geek who spends her days exploring the food culture of the Pacific Northwest. She recently wrote and photographed Doughnuts: Simple and Delicious Recipes to Make at Home. You can find more of her photos and recipes at CookandEat.com.