My mother was already doing “drive-bys” past my house by mid-April … checking to see how high my rhubarb plants had grown. On April 28, when she checked again, the plants were well on their way, but I was hesitant to harvest — the stalks were about 6 to 8 inches long and maybe a quarter inch in diameter. So, I sent her on her way until Mother’s Day — when I presented her with 10 substantial stalks, each a half-inch to three-quarters wide and a good foot long.
I am so glad my mother loves rhubarb because I have plenty to share. These robust plants take all kinds of abuse: lack of water, too much sun, too little sun, getting dug up and moved again and again — yet they return year after successful year. And I love walking out into the side yard with my knife in hand, slicing the stalk from the clump, then with one swipe, lopping the palm frond-sized leaf from the stalk.
A word about the leaves: I have known since I was a kid that I could gnaw on the stalk if I wanted, but the leaves were off limits. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalate, which exists in the whole plant, but is more highly concentrated in the greenery. Granted, it will take a lot of oxalate to kill you (depending upon your size, about 25 pure grams for a 140-pound person, for example), but just a small amount will cause adverse symptoms such as weakness, respiratory difficulty and abdominal pain, among other things. So don’t for a minute think that rhubarb greens are a delicacy to enjoy in a salad in the same way you might enjoy dandelion greens.
While it can be grown year-round (such as the hot house variety), I think of rhubarb, always, as a spring and summer treat that can be baked into pies, as the base of the pretty awful rhubarb wine my father-in-law used to make, in a simple syrup to use in rhubarb-ritas or lemonade or prosecco … or in a crisp.
If you’ve never heard the Five Iron Frenzy song, “Rhubarb Pie,” it’s a must listen for its happy little jingle as you begin your rhubarb project. Here is a recipe for you, and a few lyrics to get you started.
Rhubarb pie, in the summer.
Rhubarb pie, made by my mother.
Nothing better in the winter,
than rhubarb pie, after dinner!
Rhubarb Simple Syrup
Take a basic sugar syrup recipe: two cups water to one cup sugar, and bring to a boil until the sugar is dissolved. Then, in a low simmer, add about three cups-plus of coarsely chopped rhubarb and simmer until the rhubarb has collapsed into a mess of stringy goop. If you are looking for a bit more red coloration, I will sometimes drop a couple of strawberries into the mix, too.
A word of warning: do not under any circumstance decide that now is a good time to go check your e-mail. Watch that pot and don’t let it boil over. You will thank me for telling you this. A pot of rhubarb syrup can boil over very quickly, down the side of the range, onto the floor … and then if you also have a dog and cat … oh, the horror!
Let it cool, strain through cheesecloth or even a fine mesh strainer and you will behold wonderful nectar.
Rhubarb-ritas: Mix 1.5 ounces of tequila to three ounces rhubarb syrup; then temper the sweetness with a squeeze of lime. I prefer to rim the glass with salt, though sugar would be fine as well.
Prosecco or Champagne: Add about three tablespoons of rhubarb syrup to your glass of bubbly. A variation on the mimosa.
Non-alcoholic: Instead of raspberry lemonade, try rhubarb syrup with your lemonade instead. Use a tablespoon or more, depending upon how sweet you prefer your beverage.