Rhubarb: Harbinger of spring

I’m sure that I ate rhubarb before that, but the first time that I remember eating it was with my Grandpa Bier.  I was trailing him as he puttered out in the yard, surveying the first blooms of spring and pointing out where things were coming up.  We stopped by the row of rhubarb plants and he cut me off a juicy, ruby red chunk to taste.  I did–and it was awful!  He laughed as I puckered my lips and spit out that rhubarb.  He cut some more, discarding the large, flat leaves that he warned me were poisonous (how could a plant be simultaneously poisonous and edible?), and we headed inside to deliver the bounty to Grandma.

rhubarb plant
Young rhubarb in the garden.  The pink stalks are edible, but stay away from the leaves!

Rhubarb (and asparagus–its cousin in the odd world of perennial vegetables) holds a dear place in my heart.  As soon as the first hint of spring arrives, it races to assert its presence in the barren garden.  It is consistently and reliably the first edible of the season, and as such deserves to be celebrated!  In addition, when sweetened up a bit from its native form, it’s plain old delicious.

rhubarb prepared
Prepared rhubarb.  Chop rhubarb as you would celery.

Most people enjoy rhubarb in baked preparations.  Rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie (with or without strawberries) are always popular, especially when served warm with vanilla ice cream.  I recently made this recipe to great acclaim.  I only used about half of the tapioca called for, because I like my fruit pie a little bit runny.  I also substituted a crumb topping for added flavor and crunch.   Another go-to sweet preparation is as a sauce, kind of like applesauce.  You can simply cook it down by simmering with a bit of sugar and water over an hour or so.  Adjust the sugar to make sure you don’t drown out the flavor of the rhubarb with over-sweetness.  Many recipes that I’ve tried err on the side of being overly sweet, so make sure to add less sugar than the recipe calls for and adjust up as necessary.  Remember, too, the the cooking process itself will cut a bit of the tang on its own.



Rhubarb actually holds a lot of moisture, so don’t forget to add a thickener to your baked preparations.  The pie recipe above uses tapiocs, which is usually on a highly (seldom-accessed) shelf in the baking section.  Minute tapioca doesn’t muddy the sauce of the baked good quite as much as flour, so I prefer it, especially in fruit pies.   If you use minute tapioca to thicken your pie or crisp, try breaking down the large beads in a coffee grinder or spice grinder first.  If you don’t have one, let the filling sit mixed up for about 15 minutes or so to allow the beads to soften.  Then add them to the pie shell.

Rhubarb makes a nice savory sauce or glaze with lighter meats such as pork or chicken.  You can even flavor homemade or store bought barbeque sauces with a rhubarb sauce or compote to get some of that delicious spring flavor.

I’ve tried some rhubarb jelly recipes, however I find that the flavor of the rhubarb gets lost under all of the sweetness necessary in the preserving process.  I prefer to freeze rhubarb sauce to enjoy its flavor throughout the year.  But really, the best way to enjoy it is fresh from the earth as a celebration of warmer days to come!

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