by Camille Cody
Indigenous to Tibet, rhubarb is just about as traditional a cultivated crop as you can think of in America. For generations back it seems our ancestors have been marrying strawberries and rhubarb in pies, jams, sauces and tarts. Strawberries and rhubarb are a sure sign of of a solid spring awakening. Though we still have a few weeks to wait for the strawberries, there are lots of things you can do with rhubarb here and now.
To begin with, rhubarb is one of the most hardy plants and needs to be uprooted and separated every few years to keep it healthy and vibrant. Anytime from late fall to early spring, simply dig up an existing plant, cut through the base of the stems to the root vertically and you’ve got a divided root system with growth attached. Plant the main root back in its spot and carry the new division home with you to its new place. (Cutting back the stem to about 3 or 4 inches when replanting is a good idea to help the plant ease in to its new location.)
Come spring the plant will send out little buds of dark green foliage atop vibrant maroon, magenta or chartreuse stems and will only continue to get bigger and bigger (some mature rhubarb leaves are bigger than a Thanksgiving dinner platter!) Once the stems are about 8 to 10 inches long, you can begin harvesting by using a sharp knife and slicing off individual stems at the base. Light harvesting early on will help to promote more growth as the season continues, and the plant will keep sending up shoots.
Once you’ve got your harvest of stems back in the kitchen, quick! Cut off those huge, beautiful leaves – they’re toxic! The only edible part of the rhubarb plant is the stems, and even then, they’re best eaten cooked. Rhubarb is in the spinach and Swiss chard family and contains oxalic acid, but in much higher concentrations than its relatives, and can act as a calcium-binder, hijacking that all-important mineral from being absorbed by the body. When cooked, rhubarb stems are a non-threatening food and are actually a great source of fiber and microminerals.
Here are a few different (non-strawberry) ways rhubarb can be prepared:
RHUBARB DRESSING print-ready format
Try a rhubarb dressing over your spring greens salads.
Simply chop up 2 cups of rhubarb and cook with the honey and vinegar over medium heat till soft. Drain in a sieve, saving the liquid but discarding the pulp. Add the oil and some grated onion or garlic and salt to taste. Shake in a jar or whisk thoroughly in a bowl and chill a bit before serving.
RHUBARB MUFFINS print-ready format
Rhubarb muffins are a really nice way to start a spring day and are very versatile in pairing with spices and flavorings. The basic recipe is:
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the buttermilk (or sour milk or yogurt), the brown sugar or honey, the oil and egg until creamy. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just mixed. Next gently stir in the rhubarb and nuts.
Optionally one can add a bit of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange or vanilla extract or even maple syrup (in place of other sweeteners). All make good flavor combinations with rhubarb.
Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes.
EASY-PEASY RHUBARB COMPOTE print-ready format
And perhaps the most straightforward way to enjoy rhubarb:
Combine in baking pan and spread evenly. Bake at 400 until rhubarb is soft but retains its shape, about 25 minutes. Serve over oatmeal or granola for breakfast, or over ice cream.
(A super easy way to turn this into a dessert all its own, would be to mix a couple of cups of oats with some sugar, chopped nuts and vanilla and spread over top of the rhubarb to make a zesty rhubarb crisp – a great dessert for a spring time potluck!)