Grow and Eat Rhubarb
Sometimes it surprises me when I hear someone say they have never tried rhubarb, except in a strawberry rhubarb pie! A harbinger of spring, rhubarb is a cool season perennial vegetable grown for its fibrous stalks. You cannot eat it raw, as in its natural state, it is extremely bitter. The leaves are very high in oxalic acid, and should not be eaten. This makes them the perfect vegetable to grow in an area where deer tend to browse, as they do not like the taste of the leaves either! Perfect for our growing zone, rhubarb needs the temperature to go below 40 degrees in order for it to go dormant – breaking dormancy again when the temperatures rise in the spring. It prefers full sun and is a very robust grower, with leaves that reach up to 18” in diameter. The entire plant can grow to three feet in diameter, so choose somewhere that your plant will have room to expand. You can buy a packaged plant that is technically a crown. Plant it no more than two to three inches deep in a well-composted soil. Once it is up, add a few inches of straw or other mulch to help keep the weeds down, and apply one dose of fertilizer in the middle of summer.
You will want to cut the stalks during the first spring, but you should wait for another year, until the roots have established themselves well. Enjoy the large frilly leaves for the summer and it will die back on its own at the end of the season. When the stalks reach their full height the second spring, you can cut 1/3 to ½ of the stalks to eat. Put the leaves in the compost and cut the rinsed stalks into one inch long pieces. From here, you can either freeze the piece to make strawberry rhubarb pie, or steam them right away for a delicious side dish. You only need a small amount of water to steam the chunks in a saucepan. When it’s completely cooked and fork tender, drain the water off and mash up the rhubarb chunks. It is necessary to add some sort of sweetener, and traditionally for me that has been sugar. I have started using a combination of sugar and agave syrup, and the flavor is fine. How much to add? You’ll just have to taste it! Serve it still warm in a small bowl as a side for just about any meal. Or pour it over vanilla ice cream for a simple dessert.
Some varieties of rhubarb cook up into a ruby red color, while others are quite pale. They all have that distinctive flavor though and they are all good in strawberry rhubarb pie. This recipe is from the Virginia Farm Bureau and it’s a good one. They recommend using frozen strawberries and fresh rhubarb. My preference is to freeze the rhubarb chunks until the strawberries are in. Either way, the combination is delicious.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into ½" pieces
1 pint fresh or frozen strawberries, halved
9" unbaked pie crust
¾ cup flour
⅓ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup quick-cooking oats
½ cup butter or margarine
In mixing bowl, beat egg and beat in sugar, flour, and vanilla. Mix well. Gently fold in rhubarb and strawberries. Pour into pie shell.
For topping, combine in a small bowl flour, brown sugar and oats. Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over fruit. Bake at 400° for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350° and bake for 36 minutes or until brown.