Welcome Spring, Welcome Rhubarb
By Anna Thomas Bates, www.TallgrassKitchen.com | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
Spring is bright and pungent with sharp wild ramps, bitter dandelion greens, grassy asparagus and peppery watercress. Lots of green goodness—I am so grateful to be eating something other than root vegetables.
But as the weather warms and I break out the shorts and iced tea pitcher, my thoughts begin to wander to summer’s sweet bounty—plump, scarlet strawberries, mouth-puckering tart cherries, and ripe, luscious peaches…the fruits of summer.
All this verdant green is fresh and welcome, but I quickly become impatient for the plants and trees to get sexy and produce some fruit. Luckily, there is one rosy, tart harbinger of juicier things to come that can get me through: rhubarb.
In Chez Panisse Fruit, Alice Waters says rhubarb is “the vegetable bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer.” Technically, rhubarb is not a fruit, but a simple leaf stalk. But what a leaf stalk it is! Ranging from deep carmine to light green with blush at the edges, rhubarb is fondly referred to as the pie plant, so named for its most famous destination.
You’ll find rhubarb at farmers markets, perhaps in the yard of a neighbor who’s lived in her house for a long time, and maybe at the grocery store. If you like it, I encourage you to plant your own. Rhubarb is a perennial, meaning it comes back every year. In Wisconsin, it’s one of the first edible things to poke out of the ground. Scarlet knobs push through the chilled earth, eventually unfurling large elephant ear leaves.
It likes sun and well-drained soil and is planted from a crown that can be purchased at your local greenhouse. Put it on the edge of your garden, or even in a perennial border—it’s rather pretty. It takes about two years before you can begin harvesting, but after that, you will be the proud owner of a rhubarb plant, your very own “vegetable bridge,” that will bring you some tart sweetness when you need it most.
As mentioned before, rhubarb is famous for accompanying strawberries in a pie shell, but that’s not its only gift. Bake it into crisps, cobblers, compotes, chutneys, jam, sauce, and so much more. I use it in muffins and quick breads and even throw it into smoothies. It freezes beautifully.
Try this recipe for a quick rhubarb syrup. Use it to flavor yogurt, smoothies, seltzer, or cocktails. It will add a sweet-tart, lightly vegetal flavor and beautiful color. If you boil it until thick, you can use it on pancakes, waffles, or drizzle it over ice cream. Enjoy!