Rhubarb is flourishing this spring and will be “ripe” for several weeks. If you’re lucky enough (or have planned) to have it growing in your backyard, the best time to harvest these bright red stalks is when they’re about 10 inches long. This ensures that the plant is established and able to tolerate being cut.
Be sure to pull the stalks completely from the ground, including the curved foot, the sweetest part of the plant that’s usually trimmed off and discarded. Take care not to harvest more than about a quarter of the stalks that grow on each plant; taking more will sap the rhubarb’s energy for future years. Do not eat the leaves (they are toxic when consumed in high amounts).
While technically you can harvest rhubarb into the fall, keep in mind that the plant needs to store energy for the winter, so harvest sparingly after late June so the plant can build up energy stores to make it through the winter.
You’ll also find bundles of fresh rhubarb at the farmers markets this week; the season is short, so stock up. Look for the smallest stems that are firm and undamaged. At home, treat rhubarb like celery; if the stalks are large, use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove the stringy outermost layer.
Rhubarb’s fruity tang and vibrant color give chicken or pork a nice lift. The sour power tamps down the meat’s richness and helps thicken the sauce. Freshly chopped rhubarb stalks tossed into pan-roasted chicken thighs along with young onions make a flavorful spring dish.
In a conserve (a kind of jam), rhubarb can be both a savory and a sweet. Tamed with just a little honey, it will grace a pound cake or scone as well as grilled chicken, pork or lamb. It will temper the heat in a curry and perk up a fancy cheese plate. Swirl it into yogurt. Spoon it over ice cream. Stir it into mayo for a sandwich or slather it into a wrap.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.
Rhubarb Ginger Conserve
Makes about 5 half-pint jars.
Note: This homey conserve — a kind of jam — is equally good on breakfast toast as it is on a cheese plate. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 medium oranges, with rind, cut in half and sliced very thin
• 1 lb. rhubarb, coarsely chopped (about 4 c.)
• 2 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
• 1 c. fresh apple cider or apple juice
• 1/2 c. honey
• 1/2 c. dried cranberries
Wash the jars and lids in hot soapy water and turn upside down on a towel to dry. Place a saucer in the freezer.
Put the oranges, rhubarb, ginger and cider a large, heavy saucepan. Set over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the peels are soft, about 20 minutes.
Stir in the honey and cranberries. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently until the mixture thickens, about 4 minutes. To test for doneness, put a dollop of the conserve on the frozen saucer; if it holds its shape, it’s ready to pour into the clean jars.
Ladle the conserve into the clean jars leaving 1/2 inch of head room. Let it cool and wipe the rims. Place the lids on the jars and screw on the rings until fingertips-tight. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month or freeze.
Nutrition information per 1 tablespoon:
Fat 0 g
Sodium 1 mg
Carbohydrates 4 g
Saturated fat 0 g
Added sugars 2 g
Protein 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Dietary fiber 0 g
Exchanges per serving: Free food.