Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rhubarb 101

When my husband and I bought our house in Iowa about 8 years ago, we didn't know that something in the back yard would change our lives... it was rhubarb. I'd never eaten it, and hardly ever heard of it before.

So, when I saw (what I called then) "These Jurassic Plants" in the backyard, I wanted to get rid of them. (In my defense, look at those leaves. They are Jurassic!)
I'm not sure who told us that it was rhubarb, and we should try it... but whoever you are... THANK YOU!

I did keep it, and now it's one of my favorite things to bake with in the summer. We were lucky that we got an especially good variety of rhubarb. That stuff has been divided, transplanted, moved and has made it with us to two more houses. It's great!

But, if you're like I was, and you don't know a thing about rhubarb, let me help.
Here's my Rhubarb 101:

What Is Rhubarb?
Well, technically, rhubarb is a vegetable. BUT you pretty much use it as a fruit because it's mostly used in baking, and added with other fruits.

What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?
Heaven? No. It's very tart.Very tart. That is why you see it with lots of sugar, usually. But it doesn't taste citrus-y like lemons or limes. It's just a great, tart flavor all its own.

Where Do You Find Rhubarb?
If you're lucky, like me, you find it in an Iowa backyard. But really, you can often find it at Farmer's Markets or better grocery stores.

Where Does Rhubarb Grow?
Rhubarb grows naturally in places that freeze over the winter, and that aren't too terribly hot in the summer. My mom lives in Texas. She loves rhubarb. She is out of luck. She can buy rhubarb at a special vegetable stand, but it's nothing like the fresh rhubarb we get here in Minnesota.
I try to be nice and bring her as many stalks as are ripe whenever I visit in the summer.

How Do You Grow Rhubarb?
I am not a gardener (at all), so I referred to the experts on this one. Check out this article from Ohio State University. Universities always know, right??
But seriously, in our experience, pretty much anywhere that is not too hot is the right answer. When we moved Northward, we were expecting twins, and barely remembered to pull a few plants out of the ground. We stuck the pots in the garage (!) all winter, completely neglecting them... and lo and behold, spring came (as did the babies), and the rhubarb was sprouting! It was amazing.
So far, the only thing that killed the poor guys was my dog trampling them to get to the goodies left behind by the rabbits in the garden.

How Do You Harvest Rhubarb?
I'm sure there's a rule about how long rhubarb should be before you pick it. I, generally, wait until the leaves are huge, and the stalks are about 12-24 inches long. In Minnesota, that's usually late May through June or July. (This year it's earlier because we had a mild winter! Yes!)
You have to get down to the bottom of the stalk and pull it straight up to get it out without breaking it. (Sometimes this is hard if they're really thick stalks.)
I read once never to pick more than 30% of any one area of the rhubarb plant, so I try to stick to that rule... leaving the others for at least a week before harvesting again.

One thing you need to do while you're picking, though, is discard the "flower pod thingys." (That is not the official term.) Those will eat up the energy of the plant, so you want to pick those out and toss them in the compost bin.

What Parts of the Rhubarb Can You Eat?
DO NOT eat the leaves of a rhubarb plant. They are poisonous! You only eat the stalks - like celery.

How Do you Prepare Rhubarb for Baking?
You need to trim off the leaves and the very bottom parts of the rhubarb. This will leave you with lots of leaves. (Remember? Jurassic!) These go straight to our compost and they make great "food" for the garden next year.
When they're trimmed, you want to wash the stalks with water and scrub them with a vegetable brush.

Do I Need to Peel the Rhubarb Stalks?
As a general rule, no. However, if you're buying it somewhere that it doesn't grow naturally (like my mother, in Texas), you may want to peel some of the strings.
Some rhubarb can be extra stringy. And I've found that the longer it's been in the fridge, the worse the strings are.
But for me, when I'm working with rhubarb, the occasional string will pull off, and I just take that one off, but I want to leave most of the "skin" intact, or the rhubarb breaks up even more in baking.

How Do I Store Rhubarb?
If I'm not using it right away, I rinse the rhubarb, but try not to trim it very close, because the ends will dry up a little in the fridge and you'll have to re-trim them anyway. I then wrap the entire stalks in a damp dish towel (or paper towels), and place them in a plastic shopping bag. I wrap that around them as tightly as possible, and they'll keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

Can You Freeze Rhubarb?
Absolutely! Rhubarb freezes beautifully.
To do this, I chop my rhubarb into 1-2" chunks. Place it on a cookie sheet, and put that in the freezer. Once they're frozen (a few hours or so), dump them into freezer bags. Usually, I will thaw them before baking with them.

Well, I can't think of anything else, but if you have rhubarb questions, please ask in the comments below. I don't pretend to know everything, but I do love the stuff!! In the meantime, I'm working on more rhubarb recipes. I will link them below when I get them made.

Rhubarb Recipes to Try:
Strawberry-Rhubarb Bars
Rhubarb Crisp
Strawberry-Rhubarb Sauce (Perfect for topping ice cream!)
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

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