making sweet order of mouth-puckering rhubarb

slender rhubarb spearsTHERE ARE NO STRAWBERRIES WHEN THE FIRST SLENDER RHUBARB comes in here about now, so how the two got forever linked as pie filling, I don’t know. But with a little planning, the choicest, tender early stalks can be waiting in suspended animation for those juiciest fruits—and any later rhubarb-laced combinations you concoct, including cocktails. How to make sweet, long-lasting order of the pucker-up vegetable we think of as a fruit, with recipes from some foodie friends:

It is barely May, and I have two things in my northern garden to eat, both perennials: the start of the asparagus crop (the previous installment of this collaborative Spring Fling online recipe swap, remember?), and likewise the earliest rhubarb.

rhubarbI’m crazy about how tropical and zaftig my old rhubarb plants looks alongside the vegetable garden—and oh, those sexy, urgent-looking unfurling parts!—so I don’t harvest all its stalks at any time, but rather pick selectively to have both food and ornament.

rhubarb flower bud emergesFrom among the forest, I judiciously cut out some young, tender stems, picking regularly (you’d never notice, the plant is so quick to cover up my withdrawals). The big, old stems are great for holding up the biggest possible leaves…but for eating, they can get stringy, and I’m not apt to take time to de-string them (as you might with celery).

Freezing Rhubarb

TO SAVE FOR LATER USE, remove the foliage (which is at least mildly toxic and therefore inedible), wash and dry the stems, then cut them into pieces. Pack the chunks in freezer bags. Many books recommend blanching quickly first, but why bother?
freezing rhubarb 3

Rhubarb Compotes and Sauce

THE HANG-UP ABOUT MAKING anything with rhubarb: how much sugar it requires to become palatable. Orange juice and dried fruits (such as dates, says Mark Bittman in “How to Cook Everything;” currants work well, too) along with cinnamon or perhaps cloves can help cut back on the need for added sugar.

Depending on the ingredients and desired tart-to-sweet ratio of the finished product, a rhubarb compote could be spooned over fish or chicken (here’s one made with red wine, and served over pork)…or even ice cream. Be inventive (and note: the compotes freeze well, as would this versatile chutney with honey, allspice and fresh ginger).

Rhubarb Syrup: Sweet or Not?

RHUBARB MAKES A TASTY DRINK INGREDIENT, whether for a wine cooler, something sour (alcoholic or not) or even a twist on pink lemonade. Required: rhubarb syrup, which is easy to make by boiling chopped stems in water, with or without sweetener.

Veteran bartender Toby Cecchini used to sweeten his concoction, and then started leaving out the sugar, using only vanilla pod, water and rhubarb then straining the cooked mixture for a more versatile syrup that can go sweet or sour, as he wrote about last year for the “New York Times Magazine” blogs.

Or you can go the traditional route—simple syrup included from the start—and make this rhubarb margarita.

Either way, the syrup would freeze well, another way to savor the flavor of early spring in other seasons. And please—don’t toss the pulp after you strain the liquid off! It’s delicious in yogurt or with vanilla ice cream. Waste not, want not, right?

Recipes From My Friends

How to Participate in Spring Fling

HAVE A TIP OR RECIPE to share about asparagus, or one of the other spring farm- or garden-to-table crops on our Spring Fling lineup? Put it in the comments on my blog, and copy it onto the comments on all the participating blogs (listed above) so that the maximum number of people enjoy your idea. Links back to your own blog, or sites you love, are fine; they can be to older posts from your archives, if you’re not posting something new. The more the better! The schedule of weekly themes:

  • Wednesday, April 20: Asparagus
  • Wednesday, May 4: Rhubarb
  • Wednesday, May 18: Artichokes
  • Wednesday, June 1: Strawberries
  • Wednesday, June 15: Peas
  1. Monica blum says:

    Has anyone tried agave syrup instead of sugar or honey? By the way I have been pulling rhubarb the way Beverly described for 30 years and the patch that was here when we bought our house just gets better. At the end of the season I usually put some organic compost on it.

  2. Monica blum says:

    So as to not mislead anyone, the recipe calls for maple syrup and since it was no so easy to find here it is:
    4 cups rhubarb diced
    1/2 cup maple syrup
    2 TB minced ginger
    1tsp balsamic vinegar
    4 cups strawberries hulled and chopped
    2 tsp arrowroot dissolved in 2 TSP cold water ( can use cornstarch)

    Combine rhubarb maple syrup ginger and balsamic vinegar and simmer over medium heat for 5 to 7 mi it’s or until rhubarb breaks down
    Add strawberries mix well
    Add arrowroot and cook three minutes…
    Doing it now and it smells great!

  3. Trish Klim says:

    I love Rhubarb and wish it were in season and the markets, longer. It is expensive in So. California as it doesn’t grow in many areas here. $2.50 to $4.00 per pound.
    My question is, is there any reason not to mix rhubarb with apples or applesauce to balance the tartness?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Trish. Yes, it needs cold winter weather to thrive. I can’t think of any reason not to try rhubarb applesauce or another mix with the two. The only hesitation would be that one is a fall crop and one a spring one, so they don’t overlap in their peak harvest moments.

  4. Grandma’s rhubarb pie with strawberries is one of my favorite food memories! The sweetness of the berries, against the tartness of the rhubarb….topped off with whipped cream….it’s the stuff dreams are made of!

  5. Augusta Kaiser says:

    I purchased some rhubard stalks at Union Square Farmer’s Market in NYC. Destringed, and cut into small pieces about five stalks, then mixed a scant 1/4
    cup of sugar with about 1/2 of an 8 once bottle of Red Jacket Orchards raspberry apple juice, which was heated in small saucepan till sugar dissolved. In went the
    rhubard along with a handful of some cutup dried red plums, and the same amount of
    driscol strawberries, which are coming in from California. The strawberries are not
    as fragrant or sweet as homegrown, but they were fine. The concoction simmered and broke down into an interesting mush, but still needed a bit more sweenener, so I
    added about a 1/2 cup of homemade unsweetened applesauce, which did the trick.
    Not sure why, but the applesauce just brought out the flavors.

  6. I’m so jealous seeing your amazing rhubarb display. Recently I posted about how the rain here has nearly killed half my rhubarb crop (with photos). We’re finally drying out, and I hope my garden catches up with yours before summery heat kills the cool weather crops.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Daniel. It won’t stand wet feet I guess, especially in winter I expect, but we have been rainy this spring (until the last week or so, uh-oh!) and it has thrived. Really a big old weed here all these years (like 25 or so). I must have picked a good spot — it is sort of on a slightly elevated spot in a raised bed, so the drainage is good even in wet weather. Maybe that helps?

  7. MG says:

    Greetings! This is my very first rhubard crop and I am wondering why my rhubard is green and not red? Is it too early to pick, should I wait for it to turn red? I also have flowers grown on some of the stalks. Would appreciate any comments.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, MG. Different varieties of rhubarb may be red or green or a combination of colors on the stalk (and even yellow in one case). Here’s a list of rhubarb cultivars described by color, taste, etc. If you are growing it for stems to eat, then do cut off the flower stalks to prevent it putting its energy into flower and seed production. I let mine go because it’s so dramatic-looking and I have such a large patch with plenty of stalks anyhow.

      Welcome, Adina. Nice of you to share the recipe, especially a GF version! Thank you.

      Hope to see you both soon again.

  8. Sarah says:

    Well I have sorted out the raging out of control rhubarb patch and used a variation on the Jamie Oliver recipe to create rhubarb chutney. I was very impressed with my efforts, it actually tasted really nice!

  9. We are both planting heirloom rhubarb this year (seeds from Baker Creek) in each of our gardens, and will definitely refer to this useful information. Hope our plants eventually look as good as yours.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Michele and Caroline. I have not grown it from seed, though I let my plants flower and set seed each year because I love the way it looks. I will be interested to hear how it goes! See you soon again, I hope.

  10. Amanda says:


    We have a patch of rhubarb in our garden left over from another owner and the stalks are all green. Is it edible in the same manner as the red and if so is it merely another variety? Thanks, eager to try it, the rhubarb at the Union Square farmer’s market is $5 a pound.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Amanda. Probably merely another variety — it comes in green, red, even yellow (and a mix of red and green). If the stems are very big you may wish to de-string it like you would celery, depending on what you are making.

  11. virginia says:

    I asked about fertilizing rhubarb in the fall. Yes? No? I’m told aged manure is best but not sure when to apply it. Thanks in advance

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Virginia. Aged compost could be applied anytime. The fertilizer you don’t want to add in fall is anything fast-acting (usually chemical formulas…why I don’t use anyhow). Always a good time for soil-building like that, and winter helps things to start to mellow in.

  12. Heather says:

    I am quite interested to find a rhubarb forcing pot here in the US. I have been completely at a loss to find one, except for a $900 antique. I have looked into ordering from the UK and can’t find a company that provides that service, plus it would also likely be prohibitively expensive. Can you suggest another resource here in the US? Many thanks :)

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