When rhubarb first bulges its way out of Seattle’s mud in mid-February, it bears a resemblance to neon pink soap bubbles — or in my grimmer moods, like the garden has developed an unfortunate skin condition. Tiny seaweed-green leaves unfurl from those bulges in mid-March, just as hothouse rhubarb starts appearing in restaurants. Forget spring’s “host of golden daffodils” — for diners, this weird vegetable is a more thrilling sign of the season.
Rhubarb needs mild weather to thrive, so it’s no surprise that Washington produces the largest commercial rhubarb crop in the country — all of 275 acres — with Pierce County wearing the dapper pink crown of the nation’s rhubarb king. That acreage sounds impressive when compared to a backyard, but in commercial agriculture it’s barely a blip. Compared to Washington acreage devoted to rhubarb’s springtime companions — strawberries (900 acres) and asparagus (4,500 acres) — you’d think rhubarb would end up an expensive rarity like morels.
Nah. It is in fact prized by lazy gardeners like myself, for its abundant uses and for how incredibly easy it is to grow.
It’s a perennial, so once it’s planted, be patient for two years before you can harvest with relative sloth for many years to come. An information sheet from Washington State University’s Master Gardener extension program states that “one to two vigorous plants will generously feed a family of four.” “Generously” is a laughable understatement. I have one plant for my household of two, bake more rhubarb-based recipes than I could sensibly bother counting, and hold only the faintest hope that I’ll use what’s left in the freezer before it’s time to start this year’s harvest.
I leave rhubarb danishes to local bakeries, but use it in coffeecake, muffins, crisp and pie throughout the year. Strawberry-rhubarb is a common pie combination, although I tend to think it’s a disservice to both. Try adding a handful of raspberries or blueberries instead, for a huge textural improvement over sluggy baked strawberries. Chopped very finely and seasoned with red onion and mustard seed, it makes a fine pickle or chutney.
And stewed rhubarb is far tastier than its humble name implies: go savory with a bit of fresh thyme to serve with mild cheeses, or go sweet, combining it with anything from candied ginger to sliced kumquats, to eat with ice cream or pancakes or use as a filling between cake layers. Either version freezes well. Increasingly, Northwest cidermakers add rhubarb to seasonal ciders, where it adds a pretty pink color and mild, herbaceous tartness — at home, you can juice it and combine with lemonade or elderflower syrup and seltzer for alcohol-free refreshment.
That solitary plant came to me via a friend, unsurprising news to anyone who has had a Seattle-area garden. The only thing you have to do to rhubarb once you have a plant is dig it up every five years to divide it, breaking off smaller crowns and forcing them on friends and relations with garden plots. My friend and I are reasonably sure our variety is Victoria, a predominantly green variety which produces an enormous crop each year as long as the flowers are cut off.
Flowers, you say? Yes. And green? Also yes.
Rhubarb produces rather avant garde flowers on cylindrical stalks if left to its own devices; they look a little like an undersized head of cauliflower has been glued onto a green and pink baton. They last in a vase for a couple weeks, but even if they don’t suit your personal style, do cut them off — the more energy that goes into the flower, the less energy is available to produce those petioles.
As far as color goes, green rhubarb is less pretty than those radish-pink varieties, and it needs a little longer to cook completely, but the flavor is cleaner, less minerally. Seattle-based Ayako & Family jams appreciates the difference, and sells green-rhubarb jam for $4 more than the pink. If all you care about is gorgeous color, look for Colorado Red — its stalks are vibrantly fuchsia all the way through.
We don’t often address what an absolute oddity rhubarb is. It looks more like chard than anything else, but its closest relatives are sorrel and buckwheat. The part of it we eat is the petiole, a particular type of stalk; the other widely-eaten petiole is celery (the two are totally unrelated). So, rhubarb is absolutely a vegetable.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Customs Court of New York declared it to be a fruit in 1947, a decision repeated by a 2001 European Union directive. These rulings have nothing to do with science, but with how rhubarb is typically used in the kitchen. The lawyers seem content to ignore culinary history, as in the 1700s rhubarb was commonly used as a vegetable — stewed pork with rhubarb is a classic English pairing, and Thomas Jefferson praised rhubarb salad. It only became associated with jams and dessert once sugar became widely affordable in the mid-1800s. Rhubarb was then reborn as “pie plant,” its first step on a short and slippery slope to legal fruitdom.
Perhaps the most common piece of rhubarb wisdom: Its leaves are poisonous because they’re loaded with oxalic acid. This seems to be one of those things we all believe that may not have much basis in fact, largely because no academic bothers to publish modern studies of rhubarb leaves. We eat numerous vegetables with higher levels of oxalic acid (chard, spinach and parsley are three of the long list), and it appears that only two human deaths have ever been credited to rhubarb leaves — one in 1919, the other in 1960. There’s a modicum of speculation over what might be the culprit for those two unfortunate cases, if not oxalic acid. Perhaps a pesticide? Or an unidentified anthraquinone compound? This is not to suggest you should whip up a rhubarb-leaf salad — but for a biochemist in need of a research project, this could be career-making.
Whatever you end up making with your rhubarb, and whichever variety you choose (or your gardener friend offers), rhubarb is worth the space in your garden. Those golden daffodils will just have to make room.
Jill Lightner’s rhubarb-orange galette
Tapioca starch is sometimes called tapioca flour — it’s widely available in both Asian groceries and natural-food stores, and it’s my favorite thickener for fruit fillings. If you use green rhubarb, bake for an additional 5 minutes on the upper rack.
2 1/2 cups thinly sliced rhubarb
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
Zest from 1 small orange or tangerine
Several drops of orange bitters (optional)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch dice
4-6 tablespoons ice water
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water
1. Arrange oven racks so one is in the lowest possible placement and the other is at the midpoint or slightly higher. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. In a medium bowl, use a wooden spoon to toss together the rhubarb, sugar, tapioca starch and orange zest, until the rhubarb is well coated. Dot with orange bitters if using, then set aside while you prepare the crust.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the cold butter chunks with a pastry blender or your fingers, until the mixture looks like fresh breadcrumbs and no piece of butter is much larger than an English pea. Add cold water two tablespoons at a time, blending gently with a fork, until the dough collects into a flaky ball.
4. On a silicone baking mat or parchment sheet, roll the dough into a circle about 13 inches in diameter — it doesn’t need to be perfect, galettes are casual things. Use a slotted spoon to heap the filling into the center, leaving the juice behind, then gently spread it into an 8-inch circle. Fold the edges of the crust around the filling, trimming as needed so most of the filling remains visible. Brush the crust with the beaten egg-water mixture (you will have leftovers; they scramble nicely). Slide the baking mat or parchment onto a rimmed baking sheet.
5. Place the baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and bake for 25 minutes, then adjust to be on a higher rack for an additional 20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is soft and bubbling.