I often joke with my husband that I'm a farmer who needs a wife! Spending much of my time growing food leaves less time to be in the kitchen preparing it. After a long spring day cultivating, planting, and running around after two active boys I am pretty much burnt out and the thought of some extravagant cooking is enough to make me call the local, crappy Chinese take-out for noodles that I'll add a ton of greens to.
After kids, long gone are the days of working outdoors until dark and leisurely eating something (surely too spicy or too bitter) around 8:30 or 9 with my man. Nope. Gone. Try kids hanging on my legs around 5 saying they are STARVING and me losing it trying to keep them at bay until said man gets home from work when we eat, trying to keep the boys from saying "fart" at the supper table. I know these are the times I'll look back on and miss, or at least that is what everyone says. More like, I'll look back and smile and then smile harder when I realize that I have just baked a rhubarb pie in peace after a full day's work thank you very much.
When we moved into this house, built in 1860, there was little left of the gardens than forsythia, daylilies, lilacs, monstrous locust trees, currants, apples, tons of Bishop's weed, and one enormous rhubarb plant. I guess you'd say only the strong survive. Being the propagation nut that I am I thought to myself "why have one enormous rhubarb plant when you can have 10?" and after a few divisions and a couple of growing seasons I am left with enough rhubarb for 50 pies! I do this ALL THE TIME. More is more, you know?
Yes, more is more, and more, and more to cook! Although this is NOT a cooking blog, it is impossible to separate growing food from preparing, it in my mind. This time of year, when spring has FINALLY sprung in Vermont there is nothing more indicative of the season than rhubarb in the kitchen. The nubby little alien looking sprouts pushing through the snowy soil in early spring is enough to bring tears to my eyes and as I'm learning to focus on all things positive in this cold as hell climate, let's give rhubarb it's due!
Rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) is a perennial (Praise the Lawd!) vegetable that prefers cooler weather. This member of the buckwheat family is long-lived and easy to grow if sited well. Full sun in the North, part shade in the South (where the stems may become leggy) and moist but well-drained soil. Rhubarb does not like "wet feet" but needs to stay moist. An annual dressing of rich compost and plenty of mulch (around the crowns, never touching them) will keep this plant happy. If you are ambitious enough to test your soil make sure it is high in phosphorous otherwise amend with bonemeal. Straw or grass clippings work well for mulcing. As soon as the shoots emerge in spring I get right to this task as I have spaced mine too close together and at full height I cannot get in between my plants without a lot of hassle. I actually found my 5 year old hiding in the patch the other day, completely concealed and very happy he had tricked his mama, little rascal!! Unless you want a fort for your children, space about 3 feet apart in rows 6 feet apart. I also battle slugs (teeny, tiny baby slugs) that chew tiny holes in the leaves. I'm assuming If mine were spaced further apart I would solve that problem.
To harvest, simply pull the stalks gently, and firmly out from the crown. No clippers needed. Cut the leafy top off at once (okay, now you need your clippers) and compost it. The leaves are high in oxalic acid and are inedible. If you leave them on the stalk they will suck away water and nutrients so best to remove them right away. I do this in the garden as I'm harvesting. Choose the reddish stalks which will be smaller in diameter. Moderate harvesting can begin on 2 year old plants once the stalks are about 1" thick.
Rhubarb can be purchased in crowns, plants, or divided from a neighbor or friend. I will be doing this again either early fall this year early spring next so message me if you want to reserve some of my plants. Mine is an old fashioned variety that has a tendency to go to seed as the weather gets warmer so I must be diligent about keeping the flower shoots pruned. There are newer cultivars that would provide more bolt-resistance and deeper red coloration to the stalks but I love thinking about who else might have cooked from these plants, perhaps the farm wife I'm always wishing I had.
She was probably a goddess with pies. I have come a long way with my crust, especially after the introduction of lard into the equation (thank you, Dawn!), and now a pie comes pretty naturally to me. When I moved to Vermont in 2009 my sister gave me an old copy of The Vermont Year Round Cookbook published in 1961 by Vermont Life Magazine. I have loved an old-timers introduction to the seasonal cooking of New England (thank you, Mamie!). I have especially loved the anecdotal additions to the recipes and the one with this simple rhubarb pie is a keeper. I don't know about you, but marriage can be a long row to hoe and if you have secret weapons like this recipe in your arsenal you are sure to mend some fences, I know I have. "To be sure your marriage is happy, make rhubarb pie like this"...
Another favorite recipe of mine and one that can be served sweet or savory (think roasted pork) is Rhubarb Rosemary Preserves. I don't know where I got this recipe! It is jotted down in an old garden notebook of mine and I did not note the source. Thank you to the universe.
8 cups rhubarb chopped into 1" pieces
4 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
12 sprigs rosemary
1 2" piece ginger cut into coins
Place cut rhubarb in non-reactive bowl with sugar and lemon and macerate overnight.
Strain syrup into pan and add rosemary and ginger. Bring to a boil. Skim. Continue to boil until gel point (221 degrees on candy thermometer). Doing a gel test by placing some jam on a plate and placing in the freezer for a few minutes to see if it sets up always eases the mind. Remove rosemary and ginger.
Add rhubarb and cook 3-5 minutes. By adding it this late in the game it keeps it's shape rather than turning into total mush.
Ladle into hot sterile jars and cap (I added a sprig of fresh rosemary to each jar ahead of adding jam). Process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.
For those of you who need a primer on canning read this article from Organic Gardening.
This recipe yields about 10 half pint jars.
This homage to rhubarb would not be complete without my go-to EASY rhubarb dessert recipe. Well, not as easy as just cooking it down with brown sugar and ginger and serving over vanilla ice cream, but easier than rhubarb custard. I will just link it because I found it on Epicurious. This recipe for Rhubarb Country Cake indulges my Southern love for biscuits which is never ever satisfied!!! Best served with fresh whipped cream. I always use more rhubarb than called for because I always have more and it is usually a sticky mess, but a delicious sticky mess and I like the more filling to biscuit ratio. If you use more just be sure to place a pan (aluminum foil lined if you want easy clean-up) under your dish to catch the drippings.
After reviewing all of this I'm realizing maybe I don't need a wife, maybe I just need to clone myself. If I had two of me running around; one in the garden, one in the kitchen I might be able to accomplish all I set out to do. Just think of the flower arrangements! The pickles! The window treatments when I finally learn to sew!! On second thought, there aren't enough rhubarb pies in the world to make my marriage survive two of me in this house.