Rhubarb and asparagus have several things in common, though certainly not in taste or cooking. They're both springtime crops, perennials that can produce for years, and have a pretty short season. Rhubarb, especially, is a favorite of backyard gardeners because it doesn't require much attention.
Looking out my back windows, I can easily see three good-sized patches that neighbors have.
Julie Domaille harvests from a very large patch she has had for 10 years, but adds, "The plants are way older than that," one of which she was given years ago from a local Lewiston farmer.
Jane Carlon harvests from plants that belonged to her Norwegian grandmother, and just beyond that, Kathy Gozola has four that she grows in a raised garden.
"No history came with these. I got them from Sargent's," she said.
For those of us not inclined to grow our own, the best place to get rhubarb is the Rochester Farmers Market, a favorite place to browse, shop for all things grown locally, and hang out on a Saturday morning. Rhubarb is plentiful, and according to market manager Abby Shepler, at least 10 different vendors are selling it, among them Sekapp Orchard, Fairview Farms, Whitewater Gardens and Vang Family Farm. You'll have no trouble finding some.
There's also no shortage of it as an ingredient. You'll want to try Rosemary & Lavender rhubarb hand pies, Lori and Alexa Feyen's buttermilk rhubarb cakes and crisps, as well as pies. Moses Farms has a rhubarb barbecue sauce, for something a little different.
As you're buying rhubarb, look for stalks that are crisp and free from spots or blemishes. The stalks themselves, depending on the variety, are greenish pink to dark red. Among the varieties, there isn't much difference in flavor, though rhubarb grown in a hothouse is said to be milder and not quite as stringy as field-grown. They are all equally tart (a nice way of saying puckery sour).
Some growers I spoke with say the redder the stalk, the sweeter it is, but that's a matter of degree. A favorite of Domaille's is Crimson Red, which she feels is a little sweeter.
When you bring it home, do you need to be reminded to cut off and discard the toxic leaves? Some market vendors already do that.
While it's plentiful now, it's a short season, lasting from April until the end of June, though watering can take it into August. Most growers advise to stop harvesting by the end of June, giving plants time to store energy for the following season.
It's a pretty healthy fruit — though categorized as a vegetable, we use it as a fruit.
The stalks are 95% water, and carry good amounts of vitamins A and C and potassium. While rhubarb also has no fat or calories, that comes when we cook and bake with it with sugar, a necessary ingredient for most of us to enjoy it, however we use it.
The plant has been part of the growing season since around the late 1700s, when the story goes that a farmer in Maine was given seeds by a European cousin. Within a decade, it had become very popular in the gardens of early settlers.
For years, it was known as "pie plant," because that was its main use. Now we use it in all sorts of ways: breads, muffins, cakes, chutneys, jams, sauce, and of course, pies, where it is often paired with strawberries. As a sauce, it also goes well with chicken and pork.
The best way to store it is in the refrigerator, standing in a little water. It's also one of the easiest crops to freeze — just cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces, freeze on a cookie sheet, then put in freezer bags.
This is said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth.
1 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 cups rhubarb, diced
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup shortening
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place cut-up rhubarb in a 9-by-9-inch pan. Mix 1 cup sugar with cinnamon and sprinkle over rhubarb. Mix flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, salt, and shortening until crumbly. Add egg and mix. Pour on fruit. Bake about 45 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.