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. Gaby says:

    oh my goodness! I didn’t even think of freezing the rhubarb simple syrup. That is such a great idea – it’s so tasty and the color is gorgeous! Perfect for making happy margaritas on a rainy day!

  2. Nicole says:

    Great tips, Margaret, and I love the photos of your gorgeous rhubarb forest. Out here in California, we have strawberries aplenty and even though I had to buy my rhubarb at the store, I heard afterward that some local friends have tons of rhubarb in the garden ready for me next time I’m in need.

  3. Stephanie says:

    One of my fave rhubarb recipes comes from one of Brit cook Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks – roasted, sweet rhubarb puree swirled through whipped cream ,then drizzled with the left-over rhubarb juices. But I am most definitely trying the chutney on the link provided! That sounds yummy, and the rhubarb should be ready for it’s first harvest in the next week or so here in my rural Nova Scotia garden. And, I loved the memoir! I read it so quickly, I know it will be new to me when I re-read it while lounging on my deck admiring my own gardens during the height of summer. Thank you for allowing me to share you journey so far!

  4. These searing California temps are making a wasteland out of my rhubarb patch! I love the idea of freezing them and haven’t done that before, why NOT?

    Thank you,

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  5. DONNA MCCOOL says:

    I have a huge patch of rhubarb on a hillside( because they do not want to get their feet wet) I sell plants that I raise from seed. When you plant my plants you can harvest it the first year, by taking the largest stem from the bottom. Also you may harvest it this way without ever getting stringy stalks. You must also pull out the seed heads as this will keep from getting good crop because it goes to seed. I make rhubarb upside down cake, mix rhubarb with peaches in custard pie, and make rhubarb bread as you would make zucchini bread. You can also mix with pineapple and make upside down cake. Or you can make rhubarb cake with the carrot cake recipe. Rhubarb jelly, jam or sauce for over ice cream, it goes on and on. The rhubarb can also continue to be harvested as long as we have rain into summer. You most likely will get tired of it before you run out of it. 5 plants should make a nice patch. Make sure it is planted on a hillside or in a mound, full sun, keep the seed pods pulled out. Pull it, do not cut it , as this leaves a stub that will rot. You may have to hold the plant the first few times you pull it so not to pull the plant out of the ground Chop it ready for your recipe and just put in the freezer., for later use. ENJOY

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Stephanie. So glad you enjoyed the book! The Nigella Lawson dessert sounds positively wonderful…and slightly sinful. :) Thank you.

      Welcome, Donna. I have to confess I let it all flower and go to seed for the sheer spectacle of it — a giant frothy creature with huge leaves below — but by then I have harvested plenty with more to come from some of the younger plants in the colony.

      Hope to see you both soon again!

  6. leslie land says:

    Go Margaret! I love the idea of syrup. Bet the sweetened version would make a lovely summer sorbet, too. Or water ice? Might could just take it out of the freezer and put it in the processor until slush was achieved.

    Concerning strawberry-rhubarb pie: Given the seasonal disconnect you mention, which I’m pretty sure leaps out at all of us northern gardeners, I researched it years ago for a column. Couldn’t pin it down for certain but think it’s most likely an accident born of historical amnesia.

    In former days, probably up to the 1940’s or so, strawberry rhubarb was the colloquial name for varieties with all red stalks, as opposed to the green-tinged types. Then as rhubarb fell from familiarity and red types came to dominate at the market, cooks who didn’t know any better took the phrase at face value, thus (in my not-too-widely-shared-opinion) cursing the world with endless iterations of a very unfortunate combination of flavors and textures.

    Whoo! Sorry about the rant, especially when you’ve so nicely made it fling time for pie plant and I’m wanting to contribute this quick and easy rhubarb crostata with cornmeal crunch in the crust.

  7. kellypea says:

    Thanks for this — I’m new to rhubarb and actually just bought my first bunch. After reading this and other pieces about it today, I’m laughing at myself because I don’t have nearly enough to do much with! The syrup sounds like a great idea.

  8. Janet says:

    I was just admiring my own grand rhubarb, then looking over at my strawberries just now flowering. How simple to quick freeze the rhubarb and make it wait for its companion. Nice not to blanch it. Thanks for the tip!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, KellyPea. Yes, it does take a good bit to make some of the recipes. At least in spring there’s more where that first bunch came from!

      Welcome, Laura. Have not had rhubarb ice cream. But yes, with the syrup or a compote over it…could be divine.

      Welcome, Carly. Thank you for the twist on a “fool” recipe (love that name for a dish!).

      Welcome, Janet. Glad it’s not just me whose plants don’t peak at the same time. :) I am stockpiling mine gradually over here…awaiting the strawberries and more.

      Hope to see you all soon again.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Sarah. Haven’t seen a sorbet recipe here yet, but maybe later…meantime, thanks for saying hello and enjoy the chutney! Will make a batch here, too, I think.

  9. Delores says:

    My favorite rhubarb pie is made with raspberries instead of strawberries. I freeze some of my rhubarb and raspberries so I can combine at any time. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. Love love love rhubarb! Thanks everyone for the luscious recipes – I’ll be trying them.

  10. Janie says:

    Rhubarb and asparagus are my favorite early spring gems..

    I freeze rhubarb also, for later with raspberries. Try a little bit of orange zest in the rhubarb pie..yummy…

    Not only are the both good to eat, the plants are pretty too!

  11. Jenny says:

    I bought a bunch and ended up freezing it after not having a good recipe idea. Partly because I came across a recipe for bluebarb jam, and since blueberries and rhubarb aren’t in season at the same time, something had to be frozen!

    The nice thing about baking with fruit – you don’t need to defrost it to put it into a pie, etc. You can just take it from the freezer and use it, you just might need to bake it a bit longer.

  12. Vicki Wilson says:

    I find cutting up the rhubarb and freezing it out on a cookie sheet before bagging helps to keep it from glomming together.

    1. Margaret says:

      Great tip, Vicki — I shouls always say that before giving instructions on how to freeze things! Welcome, and see you soon, I hope.

  13. monica blum says:

    One of my favorite new rhubarb recipes comes from the Millennium cookbook I believe and uses balsamic vinegar, ginger, honey, arrowroot and strawberries. It really is a galette filling but I have not had great success with the galette form. This compote is delicious over yoghurt, or ice cream. you can google the recipe as I don’t have the exact amounts on hand right now. I have a huge harvest each year and am always looking for new ways to serve it so thank you all.

  14. Karen Yancy says:

    I am so jealous of your beautiful rhubarb. I had a great plant but it died off. This was right after I started turning it into yummy cobbler. Now I can’t seem to get another one going. I live in zone 7B where we have sandy soil that was at one time farm land. I can’t figure what is going wrong. I replanted in a different spot last year and the new plant died. Are there specific hints I need to follow? Every one I know that has had rhubarb says it is prolific. I seem to be able to grow everything else.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. It does need good moisture to get acclimated (not wet soil, but to be kept watered while it settles in). In wet soil it will rot off, but you have sandy soil so I doubt that’s what’s up. Here are Cornell’s tips on growing it…which is typically easy. Any of their issues sound familiar?

  15. Deborah says:

    Rhubarb is one of my favorite spring flavors and the syrup sounds divine! Does anyone know if rhubarb is “deer resistant”?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Deborah. I’m sure it is on some deer-resistant lists…but then people have told me that theirs has been eaten to the ground. Deer will try anything, and from region to region their tastes really seem to vary. I will say before I had a fence they never ate my rhubarb (but everything else) — probably because they had better choices (like emerging hostas and so on). If I’d had few other things leafed out at the same time, or they were hungry enough, I bet they would have tried. So almost nothing is truly deerproof, in my opinion.

  16. Betsey says:

    My rhubarb looks ready to harvest. It has big leaves and the stems are pink.

    Can I pick some?

    (I’m getting sick of asparagus!)

  17. Beverly says:

    I noticed your stalks in the photo have cut ends. I was taught to “pull” the rhubarb stalks so that the end shows the white lip from where it was attached to the crown. Otherwise it leaves a stub that will become unsightly and mushy, attracting slugs and other pernicious pests. To pull, I take a wide stance with feet well apart, grab a stalk with both hands and bend it a bit from side to side or up and down, then tug firmly. It should come off cleanly with a very satisfying “crack”. If you pull without wiggling first, it is more resistant and you may go flying backwards from the exertion needed.

    One year I picked 72 stalks from my whopper rhubarb with no noticeable ill effects. I heard somewhere that the greenish red variety is more vigorous than the all red type. It’s so yummy I am willing to give it a full sun space of 5 X 5 feet in my ever-more-shady garden.

    Thanks for such a great collection of rhubarb recipes!

    Beverly in PA, zone 6

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Beverly. I have read that, too — to pull, not cut. I was out there with the asparagus in mind…so I just went after rhubarb, too, with my knife. I will have to try your tactic and see what happens.

  18. Diane says:

    Wish I could get rhubarb to grow for me here! Does it need a very cold winter? Non-clay soil? I certainly have the sun. I will have to investigate, and then hope I can find a plant again…it’s not exactly common here in central Italy, but it does exist. Thanks for the recipes.

  19. bookboxer says:

    When I was growing up, my cousins’ grandfather (whom everyone in the neighborhood called “Pa”) offered me a taste of fresh rhubarb as he picked it from his garden. I’d never had rhubarb before … and I’ve never had it since! Maybe it’s time to try it again, now that I’m not so mad about being the brunt of his joke!

  20. QuincesandthePea says:

    these are great ideas on using less sugar, thanks! I love rhubarb but I am always uncomfortable with dumping so much sugar in anything (I feel the same way about lemons).

    I wish I could find more rhubarb for experimenting – I only managed to make one great rhubarb dish, these crepes:


    And then it disappeared from the Washington, DC area. Sigh.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, QuincesandthePea. Weird that it’s not a longer season — wonder if there’s a farmer’s market nearby that might continue to have it? Crepes sound yummy…what a good idea. And I hear you about the sugar — I always look for ways around it. See you soon again!

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